I'm not sure that the world knew too much about Zui Quan, or "drunken boxing," before "Drunken Master" appeared in 1978. I know I hadn't heard of it, and if truth be told, I still know more about drunkenness than I do drunken boxing. Apparently it's a Chinese martial art that apes the staggering but fluid movements of the drunkard and requires a high degree of balance and coordination to perfect. The irony is that if anyone were to attempt this while actually drunk, they'd probably need to be carted off on a stretcher. And so the laughs partly come from the premise that Chan's character, Wong Fei-hung, actually fights better when he's liquored up.
With "Drunken Master" (1978), Chan became a big-time action-comedy star. "The Legend of Drunken Master" (1994) is actually "Drunken Master II," which, as Yunda Eddie Feng pointed out in an earlier review, wasn't released to a wide audience in the U.S. until 2000. While you wouldn't expect a sequel that comes along so many years later to be just as good as the original, this film is. And it's the humor and storyline that make it appealing to more than just the Hong Kong action-film crowd. Chan is at his goofy-grinning best, with the fight choreography itself providing many of the laughs. Anita Mui is equally hilarious as Mrs. Wong, Wong Fei-hung's feisty, kick-ass stepmother. In many ways, she's got to be the prototype for the landlady in "Kung Fu Hustle" (2004).
I watched this alone because it was rated R for "violent content," but I have to say that in retrospect I would have been fine letting my 11-year-old son watch with me. Sure, there's almost non-stop fighting, but it's finely choreographed so that your attention is on the moves and the "dance" of the fight, rather than ass-whupping. Even when Chan falls into a bed of hot coals (yep, real coals, real stunt)--probably the most severe moment in the movie--it's blunted by humor and misdirection. You appreciate the moves as moves themselves, rather than as a means to a bloody end. So really, this is more of a PG-13 film.
Unfortunately, the original Cantonese soundtrack isn't included here, so if you hate dubbed films as much as I do, you're going to have to look past the mouth-words disconnect and just try to relax and enjoy what many believe to be among Chan's best.
The plot itself is pretty simple and straightforward. Dr. Wong (Lung Ti) is both a medical doctor and a skilled martial arts master who teaches in his home compound. The misadventures begin when, on a train trip with his father to fetch ginseng for a patient, an attempted theft leads to Wong Fei-hung's encounter with Chinese nationalists who are attempting to steal back national treasures in the possession of Chinese gangsters working with some unscrupulous Brits. A mix-up occurs, and instead of the box of ginseng, Fei-hung winds up with a box carrying a magnificent, rare, Imperial jade seal. Eventually, mishaps and Fei-hung's insistence on practicing the forbidden "drunken boxing" lead to an estrangement from his father, though his stepmother is ready and willing to help take after the bad guys. Act II launches into Act III after Fei-hung joins forces with a government agent seeking to stop the artifacts from leaving the country.
Anita Mui all but pulls a heist herself in every scene she's in, but make no mistake. This is Chan's movie, and he holds his own, whether it's using his comedic talents to feign drunkenness or strike a goofy face, or showing off those impressive martial arts in some of the most breathtaking and entertaining sequences ever filmed. I'm not a big martial arts fan, but I have to say that this was the first Hong Kong action film during which I really and truly enjoyed the fight scenes. And maybe it's because they weren't all about blood and pain--even when the Ax Gang takes the stage. They were about the fighting, and choreographed to be in synch with the film's comedic tone.
I haven't seen every film that Chan has made, but I've seen a bunch, and without a doubt "The Legend of Drunken Master" is one of his strongest.
The good news is that this print features the original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ration rather than the cropped versions that turned up on some previous DVD releases, and it's the full 102 minutes instead of the 99 that turns up on some prints. Presumably reinstated is the don't-try-this-at-home scene where Wong drinks kerosene or some such flammable version of alcohol at the steel mill. The bad news is that the Blu-ray isn't as impressive as Chan fans would have wished. And that's an understatement. But probably the same person who decided against the Cantonese soundtrack opted for a VC-1 transfer rather than the more sophisticated AVC, and the whole film appears a little dark and drab except in a few scenes where the colors come to life. The level of detail is also annoyingly inconsistent, with soft, indistinct edges in some frames and a reasonable sharpness in others. Dark scenes seem to invite further problems.
Sigh. I wish that studio types and marketing people realize that the consumers who are currently buying High Definition products are video- and audiophiles. Some are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than others, but they are all purists who are looking to replicate in their home theaters the ORIGINAL theatrical experience, or, in the case of a poor quality film debut, a version with superior picture and sound. This means the original soundtrack, with subtitles. Aside from Chan, who dubs his own performance, the other voices of these talented actors are lost, and that has a direct bearing on the comedic timing. Are you hearing what I'm saying, Disney person who made this questionable decision?
What we have here isn't sonically impressive, either. Some of the dialogue seems flat, while other times it feels as if the mix were adjusted to over-prioritize the dialogue, it so drowns out any ambient sounds. And that leads us to the rear speakers, which don't get into the fray nearly as often or as dominantly as you'd expect with an action-comedy. Offered here is an English 5.1 DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) with French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 Dolby options. Heck, I would have even settled for a 2.0 Cantonese option, but nope. None here. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, or Spanish.
Just one bonus feature: "Behind the Master: An Interview with Jackie Chan," which is a vintage promo piece of under 10 minutes.
"The Legend of Drunken Master" is a fun movie, one which deserved an MPEG-4 transfer and original Cantonese Lossless soundtrack. Too bad we don't get either.