August 20, 2013

Cornetto Week: Boozing With THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER


"A boat can float on water, but it can also sink in it."
About a month ago I went to the Brattle theater for Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy, a.k.a. The Blood And Ice Cream Trilogy.  If you're unfamiliar, I'm talking about Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and the upcoming The World's End, all of which were written and directed by Wright and star Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and a delicious frozen ice cream treat.  As an added bonus, the triple feature was followed by a Q&A with Wright, Frost and Pegg, who had all flown in from a similar event at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas the previous night.  I'll have more on that experience in my write up for The World's End, (it was a goddamn blast) but during the Q&A I took the opportunity to ask the three comedy geniuses if they would each recommend a movie for me to watch and thankfully they were totally game.  Well, except for Frost, who told me I should watch Andre, "the one about the seal."  For the record, if I hadn't seen it multiple times growing up (it was one of my sister's favorites) I would have totally watched it.

I'll therefore be spending this week watching the films suggested by those lovable and hilarious Brits in the lead up to this Friday's release* of their comedic love letter to British pubs, The World's End.

This is Cornetto Week!

I had originally planned on watching Wright's first suggestion, Riki-Oh: The Story Of Ricky, but quite frankly  I stopped watching after ten minutes because I was alone on the couch and I realized that this was a movie that begged to be seen with other people.  So instead I switched to Simon Pegg's recommendation: The Legend Of Drunken Master, starring Jackie Chan as a headstrong student in the art of drunken boxing.  Released in 1994, it's actually the sequel to 1978's Drunken Master, which bills itself as "the original kung fu comedy."  I've never seen that movie either, but Pegg was adamant that I should watch the sequel, so I took him at his word.

Much like my recent lament of Eddie Murphy's downward career spiral, it can also be easy for us to forget why we all first fell in love with Jackie Chan.  I still remember seeing Rumble In The Bronx with some friends in middle school and being absolutely astounded at some of the feats Chan pulled off.  It's kind of like the first time I saw someone doing parkour: I had no idea that human beings really could do that!  However, after the mainstream success of Rush Hour, Chan soon began starring in a plethora of super lame, uninspired Hollywood movies that seemed to neglect any kind of interesting storytelling in favor of "Jackie Chan doing Jackie Chan things."  His jaw-dropping physical abilities continued to impress, but movies like The Medallion, The Tuxedo, The Accidental Spy and The Spy Next Door left a cloud of cynicism hanging over his career.  Chan seemed willing to appear in anything so long as there was a paycheck attached, and even the promise of his top-notch martial arts skills and insistence on doing all of his own stunts couldn't outweigh the chore of sitting through these awful piles of crap.  It was easier to just go back to his earlier films.

The Legend Of Drunken Master is a pretty perfect vehicle for Chan's particular blend of talents.  The story is a little sprawling, starting with a simple accidental package swap and eventually turning into a revenge mission and a quest to protect striking workers while taking down a corrupt Western politician who's trying to steal historical artifacts.  But at the heart of the movie is Wong Fei, a headstrong young man who has a penchant for fighting despite the wishes of his pacifist father.  His preferred style is that of drunken boxing, in which the combatant always seems to be standing off balance and often looks as if he might fall over at any moment.  Wong Fei is almost constantly fighting, whether for honor or for his life, and he utilizes a number of intricate moves with silly names like "drunk plays the flute" or "uncle stirs the wine barrel."  Wong Fei calls out the moves in the midst of fisticuffs, but this narrated fighting actually pays dividends in the finale, as you watch Chan use those maneuvers and think to yourself, "Oh, that's the flute move!" But there's another level to drunken boxing.  When Wong Fei is actually drunk, he essentially acquires superpowers, including increased strength and a higher tolerance for pain.  This allows him to take on crowds of fighters in situations where he's hopeless outmatched and still emerge victorious.  But there's also a tipping point: if he gets too drunk he loses coordination and can barely stand up, presenting some serious consequences to his incessant pugilism and a nice element of gravitas to his character arc.

All of the combat is excellent, especially a scene where Chan and director Chia-Liang Liu take on about a hundred black-clad members of The Axe Gang, but it's the drunk scenes that really shine through.  After guzzling down multiple bottles of liquor (or in the case of the final showdown, some kind of lighter fluid) Chan's face turns bright red and he beats the snot out of his attackers while juggling bottles and grinning like a buffoon.  And despite all the inherent comedy, (and there is a lot of it) it still feels like Chan is trying to push the boundaries of fully-staged, onscreen combat.  There are inventive scenes, like a fight with a long spear that happens underneath a train car, so that Chan and Liu are both hunched over the entire time.  At one point Chan fights off a crowd of ninjas with a giant bamboo pole that gets shredded on one side and then tied off with a shirt, thus becoming a wire-wisk-like trap for any encroaching enemy limbs.  The final fight takes place in a steel factory and Chan is not only set on fire multiple times, but he also literally crab-walks over a bed of flaming coals.  And thanks to Chan's penchant for showing outtakes during the credits, we know that Chan actually did the damn thing and was then promptly doused by fire extinguishers.

It's easy to see the connection between Drunken Master and The World's End.  Both movies feature a lot of fighting while drinking, with the heroes flipping bottles and punching bad guys while desperately trying not to spill their tasty beverages.  In fact, at one point in World's End Nick Frost's character fights off a crowd of robots by using a small barstool as a kind of gauntlet on each arm, a move lifted directly out of the Axe Gang fight from Drunken Master.  This is clearly a movie that Pegg, Wright and Frost have not only watched multiple times, but have totally internalized over the years, and it's easy to see why it would be floating right on the forefront of Pegg's thoughts when I asked for a recommendation.

I feel like there are probably more subtle nods and homages throughout the combat of World's End.  I'll admit that I was probably paying a bit more attention to the sci-fi and comedy aspects of the film than some of the larger mayhem.  But that's the great thing about movies: each one informs the next in new an interesting ways.  I now can't wait to see the movie again with a closer eye on the fight scenes to see what else there is to discover.


*FYI, a number of theaters nationwide are also showing the full Cornetto Trilogy this coming Thursday, including the AMC and Regal Entertainment chains.  If you're in Boston, it'll be playing at the Boston Common AMC (where I'll be for my second helping) as well as the Regal Fenway.  Amazingly enough, tickets are currently still available for both theaters.

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Title: The Legend Of Drunken Master
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Jackie Chan, Lung Ti, Anita Mui, Felix Wong, Chia Liang Liu, Andy Lau
Year Of Release: 1994
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD