How, exactly, does one approach the question, “What’s your favorite Jackie Chan movie?” For most action heroes, it’s relatively easy to narrow down your two or three personal favorites. Not so with Jackie Chan, but then, would you expect it to be so? This a man whose resume includes the “Armour of God” films, the “Police Story” series, two “Project A” movies, “Wheels on Meals”, “Dragon Lord”, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”, “Dragons Forever”, “Who Am I?”, “Gorgeous”, “Rumble in the Bronx as well as the “Rush Hour” series! When so much of his work is in the top one percentile of action movie greatness, determining the best Jackie Chan movie becomes nearly impossible. But Jackie has never been one to settle for good instead of great, and that extraordinary work ethic and determination goes all the way back to the film that made him the King of Hong Kong Action Movies, yes, you guessed it, “Drunken Master”!
Leading the film is the irrepressibly energetic Jackie Chan. If his previous film “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” was the jab that brought him to the attention of Hong Kong audiences, “Drunken Master” was the knockout punch! Not only would Jackie be portraying the patron saint of Chinese folk heroes, the legendary Hung Gar master Wong Fei-hung, his take on Master Wong would be stripped of the Confucian healer’s sage-like wisdom and invincible martial arts expertise and instead depict him as a mischievous, undisciplined rogue being whipped into shape to master the art of Zui Quan, or Drunken Fist. Yuen Siu-tien, under the direction of his own son Yuen Woo-ping, portrays another legendary figure of Chinese martial arts, Beggar So-Can. Like most people, Fei-hung doesn’t initially take the drunken old cripple seriously, until he gets a taste of his torturous training program firsthand. Handling the villainous duties of the film, in what is arguably his most memorable role, is the legendary king of kickers, Hwang Jang-lee playing the devilish assassin, Thunderleg. Like all great villains, he sports a wicked moustache and possesses taekwondo kicking skills and drills that few great villains could ever hope to match!
The revered and respected Hung Gar master Wong Kei-ying, has grown tired of the antics of his mischievous son, Fei-hung. Seemingly each day brings with it a new group of people whom Fei-hung has managed to anger, whether it’s goofing-off in kung fu class, getting into fights or womanizing! All of his efforts to discipline his obnoxious son through harsher, more rigorous training regimens have failed, so Kei-ying opts to send Fei-hung off to train under the notoriously arduous tutelage of Beggar So-Can, master of the mysterious and elusive Drunken Fist.
Fei-hung takes an immediate dislike to his new teacher’s crippling training techniques, and at his earliest opportunity flees his master. However, soon after he encounters and provokes the wrath of the assassin, Thunderleg, who delivers a humiliating defeat to the wayward Fei-hung. Now with a renewed sense of purpose and determination, Fei-hung returns to So-Can and commits himself to mastering the secrets of Drunken Fist. Later, Thunderleg is hired to kill Kei-ying, but just when his victory appears imminent, Fei-hung arrives with So-Can to save his father and at last test his mastery of Drunken Fist.
With “Drunken Master”, Jackie wasn’t merely going to turn the Wong Fei-hung legend completely upside down – he would essentially be presenting himself as the anti-Bruce Lee. With the world still in mourning over the untimely death of the ubermensch of martial arts, the Hong Kong film industry had searched high and low for the next Bruce Lee with little success. “Drunken Master” almost single-handedly reversed that trend with Jackie portraying Wong Fei-hung as the underdog of underdogs. Indeed, that was just one of the many trends that Jackie would establish with this film, another being his proclivity for letting the villain steal the show. Whether it’s Ron Smoorenburg, Brad Allen, or Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Jackie has spent the better part of his career all but outright insisting that his archenemy appear stronger and more formidable than he does, and who better to kick off that trend (no pun intended) than Hwang Jang-lee? Having already dueled with Jackie in their previous film “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”, Hwang represents everything a great villain should be in this film. During their first encounter, he mercilessly pummels Jackie with a cyclone of spinning kicks, giving Jackie the resolve he needs to train for their rematch. Even when they meet again at the climax, Hwang’s kicks are so fast and relentless that Jackie is yet kept on his toes, searching desperately for a weakness to surface.
In fact, Jackie probably spends a good three-quarters of the film being beaten up or otherwise tortured in one way or another, whether it’s on the receiving end of Hwang’s kicks or in the brutal training regimen of So-Can! In many ways, this version of Fei-hung is even more of an underdog than Jackie normally portrays, which makes his eventual mastery of Drunken Fist that much more impressive. The training aspect has always been one of the most beloved aspects of martial arts films as a whole and especially of old-school kung fu flicks and the viewer can be far more appreciative of the two dozen or so kip-ups and drunken lurches Jackie executes in his final battle with Hwang after seeing what he’s had to endure to get that far. Yet for all the punishment Jackie experiences throughout the film, the practically ceaseless action is laden with his trademark style of comedy. It’s a thoroughly light-hearted and hilarious film even by Jackie’s standards -exactly what you’d expect from a film where the hero uses alcohol the way that Popeye uses spinach to enhance his combat prowess!
When faced with the task of selecting one’s favourite Jackie Chan movie, equally challenging is the task of recommending a starting point to those who have never seen what Jackie can do. “Police Story” has the glass-shattering mall end fight, “Wheels on Meals” has the duel with Benny Urquidez, “Armour of God 2” has the fight in the wind-tunnel, and so on! Where to start? However, it was with “Drunken Master” that Jackie became a household name throughout all of Asia and popularized the art of Drunken Fist, paving the way for a long, illustrious, injury and outtake-filled career. It is for that very reason that, if you’re a newcomer to Jackie Chan movies, there’s no better place to get started than with Jackie’s pioneering and most influential classic “Drunken Master”!
- Yuen Siu-tien, who portrays Beggar So-Can in the film, was shot to superstardom with “Drunken Master and would portray his character in two more films, “Story of Drunken Master”, and “Dance of the Drunk Mantis”, prior to his death in 1979.
- Jackie nearly lost an eye while making the film after Hwang Jang-lee accidently kicked him in the brow ridge.
- The character Lei Wu-long in the popular video game series “Tekken” is modeled after Jackie, combining elements of his character in the “Police Story” films with the Drunken Fist style that Jackie displays in the film.
- In 2010, Yuen Woo-ping revisited the character of Beggar So-Can in the film “True Legend”, focusing on the origins of Drunken Fist with Vincent Zhao portraying So-Can.