An Appreciation – Drunken Master 2
My earliest memory of Drunken Master 2 (1994, released in the U.S. as The Legend of Drunken Master) came from a friend who purchased a bootleg VHS copy at a local swap meet. As kids, we were already fans of Jackie Chan before he made his big splash in the states, and we heard many great things about this film, mostly from a new form of communication called “the Internet.” So I went over to my friend’s place, we popped the tape into the player, and through the bad tracking and shoddy sound we witnessed one of the greatest martial art films ever committed to celluloid. On a visceral level it is simply spectacular, a showcase of physical ability nearly unrivaled even by today’s standards.
Jackie Chan belongs to that community of movie stars whose physicality and use of space places them on a pedestal separate from others. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelley, and Cyd Charisse are all members. Through his long career as a stunt man and martial artist, Chan has firmly placed his name in the annals of cinema history. Sure, there were other martial artists that may have been better fighters (Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, Jet Li, Donnie Yen), and there were certainly others that had similar physical skill (Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Michelle Yeoh), but Chan somehow managed to transcend language and cultural barriers to become a truly international figure. He embodies the spirit of a silent film performer with the resources of a modern filmmaker.
Chan’s earliest training came from Chinese Opera. His first roles (mostly as a stunt man) were in pictures typical of the martial arts/kung fu genre of the time: mostly historical action adventures. But as his reputation and appeal grew, so did his experimentation with fight choreography and stunt work. While many of his films were directed by other people (the credited director of Drunken Master 2 is Liu Chia-Liang) it is no question that Chan – along with his stunt team – played a crucial role in the tone, rhythm, timing, and choreography of the action. There was a gradual shift of martial art choreography from the 60s and 70s into the 80s and 90s, and much of that has to do with the contribution made by Chan. The staccato rhythms of the fights scenes were replaced by smoother motion. You can see the transition by comparing the fight scenes of the original Drunken Master (1978) and this sequel. Where kung fu films of the past depicted their action with a supernatural style, Chan chose to keep his action grounded, realistic, and often in contemporary settings. As Chan gained more creative control, he had the ability to ramp up the action. And of course, there is the use of props that gave him his notoriety. He was a master of parkour before “parkour” was even a thing.
In many ways, the approach Chan takes is the same as a dance. There’s a rhythm in the body movement that applies to both. Chan’s execution is similar to the way Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley shot their dance choreography. Chan prefers clarity, opting to shoot from a wide angle to incorporate an actor’s entire body. In America, modern blockbusters will often shake the camera in an attempt to hide the fact that the actors are not trained fighters. But because Chan is a trained fighter, he makes sure that we can clearly see him placed in these precarious situations. American productions often over-edit fight scenes, cutting away at the point of impact. Not only does Chan show the point of impact, he will occasionally repeat it twice, even three times, amplifying the power of the hit. When he faces an entire gang of opponents or when he takes a death-defying leap from one building to another, he makes sure that we recognize it is him performing these feats. The most jaw dropping sequences are often the outtakes, where we’re exposed to the bodily pain Chan and his team goes through for the sake of their craft.
But what makes Chan stand apart from other martial artists is his comedic sensibility. Where other actors would play their characters as stoic, serious, or hardened, Chan’s characters are almost always underdogs, engaging in action as a last resort. When his characters feel pain, Chan expresses it through exaggerated facial features. That may be his greatest asset: his ability to articulate emotion through body language, often for comedic effect. When Bruce Lee shed blood, he would taste it as a way to show how tough he was. When Jackie Chan shed blood, he crumbled in agony. It made his characters more humanistic, thus easier to root for. Although all of his films contain action, very few (if any) would be described as violent. There’s little blood, no gore, and sex is rarely touched upon beyond innocent romance. His fight scenes are not mean spirited. There’s exuberance in the performances – a joy in the way the participants display their physicality.