Patron Request: ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the John Wick movies a whole lot. That love is informed by a lot of things, not least among them the series’ knotty plotting and labyrinthine world-building. When an action scene happens to John Wick, it’s for a plethora of increasingly convoluted reasons. I think that’s fantastic. It’s a joy to watch unfold. Still, there’s joy to be found in exactly the opposite approach as well.

In The Legend of Drunken Master (as it was released in the States), there’s a plot, yes. But a good portion of the fight scenes have little to do with that. For the first half of the film, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung fights mostly over petty slights. He fights because he’s good at it, and he likes it. The film understands that there’s really no need for a narrative excuse for action. You’re not here for the why of it all.

Still, it comes up with an intriguingly nationalistic reason to keep things moving. Sinister officials from the British consulate are conspiring to ship ancient Chinese artifacts out of the country to be sold. Wong and his family become embroiled in the plot when a switched package leaves them in possession of one of the most valuable objects the thieves desire. Wong ends up fighting for his country’s dignity in the face of feckless foreign invaders. It’s interesting commentary on the Western relationship with China, from the latter’s perspective. “Next they’ll tear down the Great Wall!” says one indignant character. The Brits have a parallel plan to con Wong’s father out of his land, if for no other reason than that the martial arts students practicing on it disturb their sleep. I wouldn’t call The Legend of Drunken Master an overtly patriotic film. Its ideas about Chinese identity and culture being stolen and sold feel rooted in honest concern rather than jingoistic fervor.

And we’ve talked so much without even getting to the action itself. Do I even need to say that it’s phenomenal? Jackie Chan is up there with Buster Keaton as one of the greatest physical performers in cinema history. The specificities of his physicality are so unique. Every joint in his body seems to have a life of its own. Each movement seems to have an exacting grace, and yet it comes across as so chaotic at the same time.

The choreography itself somehow manages to keep up with him. The improvised weaponry is consistently inventive. Each strike seems like a piece of a puzzle, one fitting neatly into the next, assembling a perfect picture when all is said and done. Perhaps that metaphor implies a didacticism that the fights do not display. Their flow is terrifically seamless. Director Lau Kar-Leung shoots them almost casually, with the canny understanding that the performances speak for themselves. Every setup is positioned with the sole goal of capturing the fullest, clearest image of the fight participants. Why that isn’t just the standard for action cinematography, I’ll never know. The Legend of Drunken Master is an all-time classic action movie. I wish there weren’t so many terrible ones these days that its historical significance only grows.

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