The Archivist #135: Jackie Chan’s DRUNKEN MASTER II is One of Cinema’s All-Time Great Kung Fu Films

The original cut of a masterpiece on Blu in the USA for the first time

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Rightly considered among the greatest martial arts films of all time, Drunken Master II, in its original presentation, had not been available in the United States on Blu-ray ever before. Until now. Warner Archive is doing a great service to western kung fu fans with this release of a seminal Jackie Chan classic which happened to have been a formative film in my own youth. Having broken out in the United States in a new way with 1995’s Rumble In The Bronx, Jackie Chan became a phenomenon at the perfect time to catch my attention as an American teenager. Lapping up whatever U.S. releases I could get my hands on, I was also privileged to work at an independently owned video store that featured a small selection of foreign films. Drunken Master II was THE (bootleg?) VHS I’d rent over and over, show to my friends, and simply marvel at the abilities of the cast and the action set pieces that outmatched anything I’d ever seen in the United States at the time. Among a handful of films to have gotten the “Harvey Scissorhands” treatment upon gaining a U.S. release from Miramax, I honestly never did bother to see the re-cut and dubbed version of the film known as The Legend Of The Drunken Master. So this re-release is my first revisit of the film since the VHS era. I took the opportunity to right a cinematic wrong and also watched 1978’s Drunken Master for the first time before revisiting what I’d long considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films ever made. It was an absolutely fantastic one-two punch of great kung fu cinema.

Most popularly portrayed in the modern era by Jet Li in the Once Upon A Time In China series, Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung has been represented across dozens of films and is generally presented as a stoic, proper, respectable hero who, at least in the Tsui Hark-directed & produced series, often represents Chinese dignity and honor amidst societal change. But before that popular early 1990s film series, an extremely youthful Jackie Chan took on the role in the legendary Yuen Wo Ping’s Drunken Master (1978). Taking the character in a singular direction as only Jackie Chan could, Fei Hung is a brash and egotistical youth who’s banished by his father from their martial arts school and who must regain his honor by training with a bizarre old drunken master to learn the secrets of drunken boxing. Though comical and loaded with Jackie’s signature BROAD physical comedy, Drunken Master follows a fairly typical hero’s journey with Fei Hung swallowing his pride, embracing defeat, and ultimately becoming the drunken master he must be in order to defeat the assassin sent to kill his father. I’d always held off on seeing the first film because the sequel is widely regarded to be vastly superior. This was an error on my part. Drunken Master shows Jackie at his physical prime, doing impossible things with his (often shirtless) body while still developing what would become his own signature style. It’s a classical kung fu film that foretells what is to come.

I mention all of this because, while I never really questioned the drunken boxing of Drunken Master II, the 1994 sequel (in which Jackie is supposed to be playing roughly the same age as he did 16 years earlier) never quite explains itself and I found watching the two films more or less back to back to be quite narratively fulfilling. Revisiting the sequel was also a richer experience for me after some twenty years of Hong Kong film fandom has deepened my appreciation for deeper cut talent than just Jackie or Bruce Lee or Chow Yun Fat. Playing Fei Hung’s father we have Hong Kong stalwart Ti Lung (though he’s not even 10 years older than Jackie), and humorously we have the multitalented Anita Mui as Fei Hung’s mother (she’s younger than Jackie). Despite Wong Fei Hung becoming a masterful drunken boxer in the first film, here his father has forbidden him from drinking and we have somewhat of a reset back to his meddlesome youthfulness. In a flurry of complicated macguffin trading, Wong Fei Hung accidentally ends up in the possession of an invaluable Chinese artifact which wraps him up in a political confrontation that puts his father’s school in the crosshairs. Sober, Wong Fei Hung is a formidable-if-immature fighter just trying to please his father. Drunk, he’s an unstoppable superhero. Part of the brilliance of Drunken Master II is how sparingly Jackie Chan and director Lau Ka Leung (who also stars in the film and features prominently in the show stopping final act as well as an early duel in, on, and underneath a train) use the drunken conceit. The patience on display in the film is quite remarkable, with phenomenal-but-subdued action sequences peppering the first two thirds of the film only to make way for a blisteringly relentless final act that dazzles and outdoes just about anything kung fu cinema has ever offered.

While our modern obsession with comic book superheroes is something I gladly and willingly participate in (not to mention regularly find myself emotionally connecting to and being brought to tears by), there’s something about the physicality of kung fu cinema that will forever have my heart above and beyond blockbuster superhero movies. It’s because, to me, Jackie Chan actually IS a human superhero. What he and his action team can capture on camera is breathtaking and frankly irreplicable. Any actor can utilize a trainer to get ripped and perform super heroic feats thanks to computer enhancement. Frankly, no one else can EVER put on the show that Jackie Chan puts on. The best American corollary today would be Tom Cruise risking life and limb to bring us the nail-biting stunts of the Mission: Impossible series. But Jackie Chan has done it for decades across dozens of films, and perhaps never has his skill set been so effectively utilized than in the final act of . Fighting two against an army of axe-wielding maniacs? Sure. And not only will Jackie show us that, but he’ll fight them off with a single splintering bamboo pole.

The final showdown in a factory features stunning martial arts and a dramatically satisfying level of insane drunkenness that perfectly walks the razor thin line of broad comedy and badassery that Chan is the absolute master of. But Jackie can’t just provide one of the most incredible fight sequences ever filmed… he also needs to throw himself on to a pit of burning coals just to suffer supremely for our entertainment. If Drunken Master ’78 was Jackie at the height of his youthful physical ability, Drunken Master II shows us Jackie Chan at the pinnacle of his filmmaking prowess combined with the perfection of his shtick, making a masterpiece of spectacle that will have you squealing with delight and cringing in pain as Jackie Chan delivers to your eyes what absolutely no one else can. Truly, this is the stuff of legend.

The Package

I know some of my peers are disappointed that Warner Archive hasn’t chosen to provide any bonus features here in this release. I can’t disagree that I’d have loved supplemental material to come along with this Blu-ray release. But I can’t be mad at Warner right now. I just can’t see past my joy at getting a chance to revisit this all-time great film in high definition, in my home, on a disc that I can own forever and revisit anytime I like. I found the film to look marvelous and it just means a lot to me to have this beloved classic in my possession in the final edit its filmmakers intended.

And I’m Out.

Drunken Master II is available 5/18/2021 on Blu-ray from Warner Archive

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