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Friday, October 20, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`New' Jackie Chan re-release is a real knockout

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

XXX 1/2 "The Legend of Drunken Master," with Jackie Chan, Anita Mui. Directed by Lau Ka Leung, from a screenplay by Edward Tang. 100 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted for violence. Dubbed in English.

"The Legend of Drunken Master," the latest Jackie Chan movie, is, as almost every Chan fan knows, not really the latest Jackie Chan movie.

Since "Rumble in the Bronx" made Chan a star in America in 1996 - after 15 years of being a star everywhere else in the world - we've been treated to three kinds of Jackie Chan movies: his new Hollywood films ("Rush Hour," "Shanghai Noon"), his latest Hong Kong films ("First Strike," "Mr. Nice Guy") and backlog Hong Kong films ("Supercop," "Twin Dragons"). "Drunken Master" belongs in this last category.

But don't let that dissuade you from seeing it. "Drunken Master" is, in fact, one of the best martial-arts movies ever made.

Chan plays legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hong, a kind of turn-of-the-century Robin Hood, who helped the poor and defended the weak - and who really existed. He is probably the most oft-portrayed character in Hong Kong cinema, having appeared in the 99 films of the Wong Fei-Hong series (1949-1970) starring Kwan Tak Hing, Jet Li's "Once Upon a Time in China" movies and the original "Drunken Master" which made a star of Jackie Chan in 1978.

"Legend" is its sequel, released in Hong Kong in 1994. It has an epic feel - there are panoramic shots of a Chinese railroad station and port city - as well as the traditional Jackie Chan humor, abetted by Anita Mui, playing his stepmother. It also has, like most Hong Kong films, a convoluted plot.

Essentially, ginseng and an ancient jade seal get mixed up in a British ambassador's luggage, and Wong winds up with the latter instead of the former - and a band of villains in pursuit. They want to export the jade seal and other Chinese artifacts; Wong and his friends try to stop them.

Wong and his stepmother also hide various shenanigans from his uptight father, Wong Kei-Ying (Ti Lung). Fei-Hong has been forbidden, for example, from using a "drunken" style of boxing, effective because the erratic movements surprise opponents. This style becomes more effective with alcohol - the body becomes looser and able to withstand greater pain - but, as Kei-Ying tells his son, "Many drunken boxers become nothing more than drunken fools."

Of course we all know the title of the movie. He's going to drink; and when he does, we witness some of the coolest, funniest, most beautifully choreographed fight sequences ever put on film. There's something about Chan, holding only a Chinese fan, fighting a chain-swinging villain, that inspires giddy smiles and applause. Not to mention the fight under the train, outside the restaurant, against the ax-wielding gang, and the finale against Thai kickboxing champion Ken Lo (Chan's real-life bodyguard).

Yes, there are melodramatic and silly moments; and it's odd seeing the nearly 40-year-old Chan playing an adolescent-like character. But my main worry going in - I'd seen the original several times - was the dubbing. How would it sound? Turns out it's fairly unobtrusive, and sometimes even better than the original subtitles; often the dubbed dialogue makes more sense.

Jackie Chan, along with the silent comedians and the MGM dancers, is one of the greatest physical film stars of all time, and "The Legend of Drunken Master" is one of his greatest films. Go.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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