Drunken Master (1978)

Written by Mike Lyon on March 12th, 2008

I’m a Jackie Chan junkie, and so it was a pleasure to watch Drunken Master, the film that catapulted Jackie to stardom when it was released in Hong Kong in 1978. It takes the familiar martial arts story of Wong Fei Hung (a role also played by Jet Li during his early career in the Once Upon a Time in China movies) and turns it on its ear, making Wong a big fucking jackass who likes stealing food and groping women. It’s a pretty typical HK screwball comedy high concept, albeit translated onto a very atypical historical figure!

Druken Master definitely suffers from a weak first act, although there are some excellent fight sequences as the story develops. Even at this early stage in his career, you can see Jackie’s trademark, lyrically-choreographed kung fu and stuntwork taking shape. There are also some sincere, huge laughs, mostly once then-66-year-old Simon Yuen takes to the screen as Jackie’s titular drunken mentor. This was one of Yuen’s last roles, and you’ll have a hard time believing some of the acrobatic stunts he pulls off in his advanced years, although there are a few noticeable uses of a body double.

Like most fight films of the period, the plot is mostly an excuse to usher in the next kung fu exhibition. Thankfully the fighting is uniformly excellent (as well as the comedic training sequences, which show off Chan’s admirable physique), particularly the final battle, where Chan seamlessly utilizes eight different forms of drunken kung-fu to dispatch his foe. Of particular note is that this is also one of the few chances you will have to see Jackie consistently get the shit kicked out of him. His stunt falls are truly inspirational, with more spins and somersaults than you can imagine.

Though not one of my favorites, Drunken Master offers a welcome look at Jackie’s early development, featuring some great laughs and just about the most kung-fu per minute of any martial arts film you’ll ever watch! If you really want to get into the spirit, have some drinks handy for your screening; in the immortal words of Simon Yuen, “Power and wealth are to no avail – let only our drinking prevail!”


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