Peak Jackie Chan: The Intoxicating Joys Of The Legend Of Drunken Master

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Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

You will get sick of Jackie Chan. It's OK. Happens to everybody. The constant homina-homina mugging, the pinched and exaggerated Did I do that? facial expressions, the theatrical triple-takes—he's as much a vaudevillian physical comedian as he is a global kung-fu star. The trick is to lose yourself in those irritating tics until the first "Holy shit, he's using a bench as a cane and also as a weapon" moment.

Chan, at his peak, could do things that no other action star could do. He could get into these amazing, elaborate fight scenes that felt like lighter-than-air Bugs Bunny sequences even though, as the end-credits outtakes always remind us, there are real medical stakes involved. He could fight a horde of dudes while also making fun of that group of dudes, and make the whole thing look as casual as dancing.


The Legend of the Drunken Master—released in China in 1994, and brought to America in 2000—is, I think, the best Jackie Chan movie ever, and that's in part because it's the most Jackie Chan Jackie Chan movie ever. He was 40 when he made this; 16 years had passed since 1978's original, not-unserious Drunken Master helped make him a star in Hong Kong. This was his early-'90s sweet spot, after he'd completely figured out his stock character and his film style, but before he went to Hollywood and did anything Rush Hour-related.

Despite his age, I'm pretty sure his character is supposed to be a teenager, or anyway someone scared to death of his own dad. The movie is a big, broad, dumb comedy as much as it is an action movie, and you will have to endure countless scenes of Jackie and his mother-in-law (the late Canto-pop star Anita Mui, way younger than Chan at the time) covering for each other when they're about to get into trouble. There's also the inevitable Jackie-hits-bottom scene when his father kicks him out of the house, and that goes on way too long, too. But the exaggerated, theatrical energy of those scenes seeps into his mind-boggling drunken-boxer fighting style, where his limbs become liquid, and he leans and stumbles and spins around, but somehow beats everyone up anyway, waggling his eyebrows at them the whole time.

As in the original Drunken Master, Chan plays Wong Fei-Hong, a Chinese folk hero who shows up again and again in Hong Kong movies. Jet Li played the character in 1991's great and star-making Once Upon a Time in China, but his take was a more serious, sweeping thing. Whereas Chan imagines him as a total clown, one who magically gets better at fighting when he's shit-faced, which means we get all these scenes of him busting open bottles and chugging liquor mid-fight. As with so many Hong Kong movies, the villains are nefarious British colonizers and their Chinese collaborators. (If you're white, watching movies like this is always a healthy reminder that the world hates you.)


Things get serious when the Chinese workers realize that the British assholes are stealing their priceless cultural artifacts, and when Chan heads into the bug-your-eyes-out incredible final fight scene, he's all business. He battles a team of Chinese turncoat goons, gets lit on fire, and scoots backwards across hot coals (a real-life stunt that scarred up Chan's arm for life). But then he drinks some sort of industrialized factory alcohol, burps actual fire, and goes back into the wobbly, woozy drunken-boxing style—but this time with stakes, with purpose.

The final one-on-one fight is against a snooty, uptight, greed-blind Chinese aristocrat played by Ken Lo, Chan's former real-life bodyguard. (Hong Kong must have a lot of bad motherfuckers if Jackie Chan ever needed a bodyguard.) It's a fast-paced. goony masterpiece of the form, a scene so brutal and balletic and dizzily impossible that it feels like you're imagining it while you're actually watching it. Scenes like that are why you can't stay sick of Jackie Chan.


(The version of this on Netflix is, unfortunately, the dubbed-into-English version that came out in American theaters in 2000. But at least Chan dubbed his own voice, and Bryan Cranston's is in there somewhere, too.)