This 1978 martial arts comedy remains one of the earliest examples of kung fu action combined with comic characters and situations for which Jackie Chan became most famous. It also turned Chan from a relative unknown into a huge commercial star.
Still one of Chan’s favourite films, Drunken Master was released the same year as another one of his movies Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, an action comedy that laid the groundwork for Chan’s brand of performance. However, Drunken Master was by far the better performer at the box office thanks to its comic absurdity and Chan’s blossoming screen presence. The martial arts master and stunt extraordinaire oozes likability while his fight choreography is second to none. The reason behind his success in the West is due to the charm he exudes coupled with the kinetic energy of his fight sequences.
Undoubtedly, Drunken Master is fun to watch. What’s really exceptional is the way Chan designs comedy into the fight sequences, making them both exhilarating and funny. Often unfairly but unsurprisingly compared to Bruce Lee, Chan’s brand of action comedy distinguishes the Hong Kong star from the Godfather of martial arts cinema.
Drunken Master sees Chan play Wong Fei-Hung, a quirky, unpredictable young man forced to train under the legendary martial artist Su Hua-Chi (Siu Tien Yuen) by his father. Su Hua-Chi’s fighting techniques have been known to cripple trainees and, as hinted at in the title, best performed when inebriated. Displaying a knack for a good fight, Wong completes his training and is thrust into a battle to save his father’s life after he is targeted by a contract killer.
Off-putting for some audiences with its relatively plot-less narrative, Drunken Master instead relies on comic predicament and the vitality of Chan’s winning smile as well as his fist. The film works because it pleasingly mixes many very funny moments with expertly constructed fight sequences that showcase the kung fu talents of Chan and his co-performers. The film also boasts some of the best combat sequences of Chan’s career, despite it being one of his earliest roles, and will thrill fans of martial arts cinema.
Perhaps Drunken Master’s best attribute is that its charm feels like it was made while drunk. Not a lot can be said about the dramatic performances and the uneven plot development is arbitrarily strung together. You could even question if director Yuen Woo-ping knew exactly what he was doing with the camera. But together with Chan they give us a sense of the absurd that is strangely liberating, that feeds the film’s offbeat sensibility and stages some wonderful fight sequences. If nothing else, the film sticks in the memory. For fans of martial arts cinema, and for those wanting to check out Chan’s best work, Drunken Master remains a pivotal moment for both genre and star.
Written by Rory Fish
Directed by: Yuen Woo-ping
Written by: Lung Hsiao, Ng See-yuen, Yuen Woo-ping
Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, Hwang Jang-lee, Dean Shek
Top 10 Films reviewed Drunken Master on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. The film was released on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray on April 24, 2017.