The Original Kung Fu Comedy!
Jackie Chan was the kung-fu equivalent of a struggling actor—he just didn't click with his intended audience as a dramatic warrior. Then he tried his hand…and feet…and arms…at comedy with the landmark film hit kung-fu comedy Drunken Master, which is now on DVD care of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
We all know Jackie Chan as the king of kung fu comedy, the everyman who gets the girl/exacts revenge/saves the world after cleverly bumbling through battles with the bad guys. Drunken Master is filled with some of the best kung-fu practitioners in martial arts film. It showcases Chan's ability at its best and preserves his youthful beginnings for posterity. But does the transfer of this classic do it justice?
Wong Fei-Hong (Chan) is a troublemaker. Always clowning around, teasing girls, and getting into scraps with others, he's heading for self-destruction. Finally, his father, Master Wong (Lin Chiao), demands he change his life around.
The plot isn't really what's important here. The real importance is that Su Hau Chi, AKA the Drunken Master, whips Wong into shape. Constantly schnockered on wine, the Drunken Master (we'll call him DM from now on) is a cruel disciplinarian and unbeatable kung-fu opponent. Disgusted at first, Wong doesn't stick around long to learn the way of the DM. [Editor's Note: Can I bring in my 20-sided die at this point?] After humiliation by one of his father's enemies, however, he decides the drunken way is the right way. Indeed, under DM's tutelage, Wong is able to defeat a would-be assassin, Thunderleg (Jang Lee Hwang)
Director Woo-ping Yuen (the legendary fight choreographer, most notably for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) struts his stuff as a man who knows kung fu backwards and forwards…and sometimes even sideways. There is non-stop action in Drunken Master, reflecting a time when an action film was an action film, dammit, and none of this emphasis was on dialogue or story! There certainly are enough plot twists and cheesy humor—aided by the incongruently Americanish dubbed voices (the Drunken Master sounds A LOT like Lee Marvin)—to keep your story appetite satisfied, but come on. If you're watching this movie, you're all about the kung fu. And boy, do you get it tenfold.
Yuen's direction gives the actors a lot of latitude to show off in their fight sequences, and since the actors actually perform the work, the camera backs off and lets the action speak for itself—lots of long shots and wide shots to showcase the fights. That's where the anamorphic widescreen comes into play—kung fu movies and widescreen are perfect partners. In this case, the 2.35:1 ratio complements the very lateral movements of the kung-fu players. Picture quality was a little rough, with lots of grain, white splotches, and an occasional vertical line through the screen. However, despite darks being less than solid, colors were crisp and true, with nice definition and shading. A mixed transfer here.
The sound quality fared worse. The digitally remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack (in original Cantonese and dubbed English) unsurprisingly had no depth. It was about as front-speaker-focused as you could get. The overdubs and "swipe-swipe!" karate sound effects sounded like they were recorded in a cave. Not a very good sound clean-up here. Also included on this disc are English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Thai subtitles.
Extras were adequate, thanks to a great commentary by Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang, two martial arts fanatics. Meyers is an author and expert on martial arts films, frequently appearing on Bravo, A&E, and other networks as a kung-fu film pundit, and Yang's biggest qualification to comment is his co-authorship of Jackie Chan's autobiography with the great one himself. Tips on where the film was cut (the opening scene was, sadly, hacked in half), who the actors were (Lin Chiao, who played Chan's father, is an acting legend in kung fu films), and tips on Chan's rise to fame are all tidbits any martial arts film fan will eat up. It's fun to hear a movie where Jackie Chan farts in the face of his opponents as a "seminal work," but even funnier is the fact that…it's true!
Trailers round out the extras, for what looks to be a pretty kick-butt modern martial-arts film called Time and Tide (and it had fair-to-good reviews upon its release in 2000) and another instant classic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. How cool would it have been, though, to see one for Drunken Master?
Drunken Master is a classic for a good reason—high comedy and even higher kicks make this a very enjoyable film for fans of camp and martial arts films alike. It is a kick—no pun intended—to see Jackie Chan young and leonine, in the first movie to make him a star. Unfortunately, the sound does not highlight the action as well as it should, though it looks like Columbia TriStar did the best it could refining the old print for transfer.
If I were as drunk as Jackie in the last fight scene, I could get by with the crappy sound, but no can do. I'll just give this film a slap on the wrist—you can't go wrong when Jackie Chan is in his element.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Martial Arts Film Experts Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang
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