Jackie Chan still has the moves. Well, at least he had the moves six years ago, when “Legend of Drunken Master” originally premiered as “Drunken Master II.” The “II” isn’t strictly a sequel, but rather pays homage to the 1979 movie that made Chan famous.
The “master” refers to Wong Fei Hung, a real historical figure and favorite folk hero of Hong Kong cinema (most successfully revived by Jet Li in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series). Instead of the usual reverential approach, Chan reverts to his standard by playing Hung as an irrepressible, well-meaning youth who wreaks mischief.
The misadventures begin at a rail station where Hung, to avoid paying duties on a box of ginseng, slips it into an ambassador’s suitcase. When he sneaks into the baggage car later to retrieve the smuggled root, he comes upon an older man stealing a gold cloth-wrapped package from the same suitcase. Naturally, the two have swapped packages. It turns out that the thief is Master Fu (Lau Ka Leung), a senior government official intent on stopping the English ambassador from selling off Chinese artifacts to the British Museum of Art.
All this doesn’t surface until the second half of the film; the first part focuses on Hung and his stepmother (Anita Mui) hiding the loss of the ginseng from his honorable physician father, Wong Kei Ying (Ti Lung).
Industry gossip has it that the studio held this movie for fear it wouldn’t translate for American audiences. “Legend” does work as a follow-up act to “Shanghai Noon,” which presumably has softened the culture shock for Westerners enough so they can feel at ease in turn-of-the-century China. Certainly the frenetic railway scenes amid the lovely Shanghai countryside are among the highlights.
One concession to English speakers is the dubbing. The voice talent hasn’t quite caught up with the advanced technologies in dubbing, whatever they might be, although there has been a merciful progression from the old days when it was just three guys and one screechy woman squawking in exaggerated Chinese accents. Chan speaks for himself; ironically, he’s the one hardest to hear.
Unfortunately, the studio didn’t take a firmer hand in re-editing “Legend.” A few scenes have been excised, especially the silly, irrelevant tag ending, but more could have been removed to tighten up the comic mugging, which Chan overdoes. Given the tenuous chain of events that make up the story line, little would have been sacrificed for an audience largely waiting to see the incredible martial arts choreography.
Flimsy as it is, “Legend” is well-stocked with formidable talent. Lung is a veteran of the Shaw Brothers movies and a best-actor winner for John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow.” Cantopop singer Mui first achieved international recognition for Stanley Kwan’s 1987 “Rouge.” On screen all too briefly (partly due to creative differences between Chan and Leung) is co-director Leung, a legendary martial artist whose grandfather studied under the original Wong Fei Hung. The fight between Leung and Chan beneath the train, while not as flashy, is a truly stunning example of physical mastery. Incidentally, in America, Leung would qualify for senior citizen discounts.
The true draw of a Jackie Chan film is seeing what ways he has conjured up to put himself in mortal danger, and here he more than fulfills that mandate. There are the exquisite, throwaway moments of deftness, such as early in the film when Hung abandons chasing a mugger and pulls himself back through the train window, backwards. Then there is the mob scene, in this case a hired gang of ax-wielding killers.
The first alcohol-fueled demonstration of drunken boxing and yes, this is a true style is a rough draft for the final fight. A steel mill showdown is an excuse for Chan and his stuntmen to be set afire, hit with steel rods and roll around in burning coals. The formidable opponent is the ambassador henchman (Ken Lo, Chan’s bodyguard). Lo’s astounding legwork don’t come from wires, but years of professional Muay Thai kickboxing. The outtakes include the film crew hosing off a sizzling Chan with a fire extinguisher.
It’s too bad Chan hasn’t been able to reclaim the inventive, screwball humor of his early films. But considering the brutal punishment he eagerly undergoes, it’s really too much to ask.