Drunken Master (1978)
Drunken Master (1978)

Genre: Action Comedy and Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: October 5th, 1978 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Woo-Ping Yuen Actors: Jackie Chan, Yuen Hsiao Tien, Huang Cheng Li, Shih Tien, Chiao Lin, Linda Lin, Chiang Wang

 


 

A

ssassin Thunderleg snags a bounty of $500 for the death of Chen Kuo-Wei (Shun-Yee Yuen), champion of the Four Door Fist – a man who has never been defeated. “I’ll break every bone in your body and send you to hell,” threatens Thunderleg as they face off atop a mountainside clearing. But this is a mere introduction to the villain; the story proper begins in a martial arts school, in which student Won Fei Hung (Jackie Chan, credited here as “Jacky”) – or Freddy Wong, as designated by dubbing – pokes fun at his instructor, before besting the poor substitute in front of all the other pupils. The owner of the dojo is Freddy’s father, Robert Wong (Chiao Lin), which gives the wayward youth the feeling that he can get away with insubordination, roughhousing, and general insolence.

That afternoon, Freddy bets his pals that he can get a pretty village girl to kiss him, then hug him, which he succeeds in doing using some light trickery. Of course, after the girl’s honor is ruffled, the girl’s mother intervenes to give Freddy a sound beating. And then this segues into a scoundrel who steals from a marketplace vendor, prompting Freddy to knock him all over the place in return. It’s apparent right from the start that storytelling is of little importance; one kung fu fight after the next is all that matters to keep interest – and excitement – up.

By coincidence, the older woman and the young girl are actually Freddy’s aunt (Linda Lin) and cousin (Jing Tang). Expectedly, this leads to some harsh disciplining that transitions quite quickly into yet another altercation, this time with Mr. Li (Ging Man Fung), who is infuriated that his son (the bully in the market) was taught a lesson at the hands of Freddy. The film is essentially one exhibition after another, switching between styles, weapons (including an iron-like pate), combatants, and locations.

Despite the onslaught of martial arts duels, the continual use of loud twig-cracking sounds for kicks and punches, the piercing whooshing of missed strikes, and various other over-the-top noises (like something from “The Three Stooges”) give “Drunken Master” a highly comic feel. Exaggerated mugging to the camera, bad dubbing, extreme facial expressions, and straightforward slapstick further contribute to the humorous vibe. It’s an early example of Jackie Chan’s brand of filmmaking (here, directed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping), adopting silliness and levity over violence and severity.

In the world of “Drunken Master,” virtually anything can serve as the catalyst for a fight. Freddy skipping out on a restaurant check; a trivial insult; or simply meeting a new person around town. Eventually, great uncle Su Hua-Chi (Yuen Hsiao Tien), a white-haired transient, is hired to teach the impertinent Freddy some manners – and the specific art of drunken boxing, which isn’t even hinted at until more than an hour into the film.

Setting the groundwork for Chan’s subsequent pictures, this one boasts plenty of fast-paced kung fu, utilizing creative choreography that intertwines props, clothing, the environments themselves, and even montages of energetic falls. Although the fighting is undoubtedly impressive, there’s an overly rhythmic, coordinated, precise flavor to the encounters; none of the skirmishes possess the refinement of spontaneity – and the complexity of his future projects. Plus, “Drunken Master” in particular hasn’t quite captured the endearing formula for Chan’s persona; he’s largely unlikeable due to his disrespectfulness and crassness. He’s very rough around the edges. In combination with an abundance of training exercises (so many that they span the course of a year) and comic interludes, there’s still a lot of sharpening to do in terms of marrying excitement and action with humor and a sensible premise to showcase physical talent. The pacing is off as well, since the movie is almost two hours long. Nevertheless, the martial arts are astounding, culminating in a magnificent display of the eight drunken gods techniques.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10