An Appreciation – Drunken Master 2
I have gone this far and have yet to talk about Drunken Master 2. Perhaps this is more of an appreciation of what Jackie Chan brought to world cinema, with this being his magnum opus. Everything special about what he does is highlighted here – this is him working at the height of his trade both athletically and artistically. Even at the age of 40 (at the time of the film’s release) Chan showed no signs of slowing down. He still appears to be in peak condition – his movements are fast and fluid. The creativity of the fight scenes is stunning – they all stand on their own, with their own unique identity apart from the others. No two fights are alike. If I was ever asked to suggest a film that best exemplifies the best of Jackie Chan, there is no question this would be it.
The plot is utterly ridiculous, involving British ambassadors stealing Chinese artifacts in the early 20th century. We also have a subplot dealing with a steel factory and the workers being oppressed by the same British officials. One need not see the first entry to understand and appreciate this. Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, a Chinese folk hero who – in this incarnation – is embroiled right in the middle of the conflict between the Chinese and British forces. What’s notable about Fei-hung is his mastery of a kung fu style known as “Drunken Boxing,” in which the movements are representative of a person who is intoxicated. The style apparently grows in power the more alcohol one consumes, but Fei-hung’s use of it is strictly forbidden by his father (Lung Ti), even though his mother (Anita Mui) urges him to use it. Ultimately, Fei-hung is caught between the obligations to his family and the patriotism he feels for his country, knowing that drunken boxing could serve in stopping the British from stealing their culture and history.
That’s about as deep into the plot as I’ll go. Even the narrative itself doesn’t place much emphasis on the historical implications. Rather, the plot is used as a string to hang the fight scenes on. This is first and foremost an action film, and Chan and his team are well aware of that fact. Each moment has energy and excitement and very well could be the climactic scene of any lesser movie. Notice how inventive each fight is in where it’s set and how they play out. The early sword and spear fight between Chan and Liu Chia-Liang is breathless in how the two perform its entirety while within a constricted space. They start crouched down underneath a train, and then move on to fight underneath a raised platform. When Chan fights a gang of thugs, it is the first time we see Fei-hung incorporate the drunken boxing style to its full effect. Chan’s face actually turns bright red the more drunk he becomes. Chan accomplished this not by literally drinking but by standing upside down and letting his blood flow into his head. When we think about how long the scene is and how long it must’ve taken to shoot it, we get a sense of how committed Chan was in pulling off the effect.
Chan and Liu’s fight against an entire axe gang in a teahouse is a perfect example of how Chan’s style built upon martial art films of the past. A good way to examine it is to compare it to a similar situation in The Chinese Connection (1972) where Bruce Lee takes on an entire dojo of Japanese fighters. Upon closer examination, we notice that the enemies attack Lee one at a time, with background actors moving side to side as a means to create tension. The construction of the fight is similar to other martial arts films of the time. The scene still works, mostly based off of Lee’s enormous screen presence. Chan took this and added to it, making the choreography far more complex. Instead of enemies attacking one at a time, here they come all at once, attacking from all kinds of different angles, flowing in from every conceivable entry point. Chan goes from the second floor down to the first then back up again. He and Liu use potted plants, chairs, benches, and a bamboo stick to keep the axe gang at bay. The scope is enormous, and I can’t even start to comprehend how Chan and his team pulled it off. Even more incredible: it’s not the best scene of the film!
The last twenty minutes of Drunken Master 2 contains some of the best displays of physical prowess ever captured. It’s masterful in the way it’s conceived, shot, and put together. Yes, it works a bit like a video game, as Fei-hung goes from fighting one enemy to another as though he is facing the boss at the end of each level. But the scenes are so well made and exhilarating that we can forgive the looseness of the story. This all culminates in the battle between Chan and Ken Lo. Interestingly, Lo – who was actually Chan’s bodyguard – was not the choice to play the villain role. However, due to an injury sustained by the original actor, Lo came in as a replacement. This last second change turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Lo gives Chan just about as much as he could handle. His lightening fast feet and long limbs highlighted the physical advantage Lo had over Chan. It took nearly four months to shoot their scene, as both Chan and Lo sustained significant bodily harm but continued to perform take after take to make sure they had the proper shot. The result is an acrobatic feast for the eyes, as the two of them duke it out with amazing dexterity.
There are those in the film industry who excel at writing, acting, or directing. Jackie Chan excelled in using his body in ways others simply could not. His ability to use cinematic techniques to show off his talent has cemented his legacy, deserving as much study and consideration as other so-called “serious” filmmakers. With Drunken Master 2 and many of his other works, Chan perfected being a vulnerable human being capable of superhuman acts.