The Legend of Drunken Master

The Legend of Drunken Master (1976)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Jackie Chan
Extras: ’Behind the Master’ Interview, Theatrical Trailers

"The Legend of Drunken Master" was released theatrically in the U.S. in October 2000 by Disney-owned Dimension Films. The original title of what is arguably Jackie Chan’s finest film is "Drunken Master 2" and it was a smash hit in Asia upon its initial release there in 1994. Sensing that American audiences would be confused by a title implying that the film is a sequel, which it is, Dimension decided to rename the movie. More troubling is the fact that they also decided to commission a new English dubbed soundtrack and jettison the original Cantonese dialogue and musical score.

Jackie Chan stars as Wong Fei Hung, a traditional Chinese folk hero portrayed in well over 100 movies. Set somewhere around 1915, the film offers up many of the well-known Fei Hung tidbits while at the same time allowing Jackie free reign to infuse the movie with his own unique blend of furious action and slapstick comedy.

During a train ride back from a trip to purchase herbal remedies for his family’s school, Fei Hung decides to circumvent customs and accidently swaps his box of ginseng for a box containing stolen Chinese artifacts. Oblivious to his mistake, Fei Hung finds himself doing battle with General Fu Wen Chi (played by the film’s original director — later replaced by Jackie Chan himself — and ex-martial arts star, Chia Liang Liu, aka Lau Kar Leung) who is determined to keep these important artifacts in China. Their sword and spear battle beneath the train is one of the best fight scenes in martial arts cinema.

Returning home, Fei Hung soon realizes his mistake and it’s not long before his family and friends wind up in grave danger at the hands of the British smugglers and their local goons. With the help of his stepmother, played by Anita Mui, he disobeys his father, Wong Kei Ying (Lung Ti), and starts busting criminal heads with his Drunken Boxing technique. As the name implies, Drunken Boxing features movements that emulate an inebriated man and a skilled practitioner can enhance his performance by actually imbibing alcohol during a fight. You’ll not see a traditional Hollywood movie willing to tackle this bizarre subject.

The film concludes with an intricate and hair-raising battle in a foundry that is being used to smuggle out the historical relics. The final one-on-one fight features Jackie sparring with his real-life bodyguard, and kickboxing champion, Ken Lo in a scene that took over four months to train for and film. The outtakes that accompany the end credits reveal just how complex this fight scene really was.

"The Legend of Drunken Master" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. As fans of Hong Kong cinema are well aware, decent looking prints of their favorite films are very hard to come by and I was pleasantly surprised with the overall quality evident on this release. The image is fairly sharp and steady with good color saturation and nice contrast. Black levels aren’t as deep as one would find on the latest Hollywood blockbusters but this is a fault of the source materials and not the DVD transfer process. Film grain is held to a minimum as well and there are only a handful of blemishes that mar the image. This is really as fine a transfer as one could reasonably expect for this type of film barring a full-scale restoration.

The audio comes in English and French <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>es and here we find the biggest problem with this DVD. It is always preferable to view foreign films in their original language with optional English subtitles. The fact that the Cantonese track isn’t even included on the disc is inexcusable but not a complete deal breaker. Truth be told, the Cantonese track was itself a dub job and none of the original actors did their own voice over work — including Jackie Chan. In the English dub Jackie actually dubbed his own voice so you really are hearing him speak his lines. Pretty odd, eh?

Equally off-putting is the fact that the original musical score by Wai Lap Wu was ditched and a completely new score created by Michael Wandmacher. While the new score is nice enough, it has more modern elements than the original and feels slightly out of place. Again, it’s fine to offer an alternative but please have the decency to include the original materials as well.

Also of concern is the fact that the Cantonese track had the sound effects perfectly synched with the on-screen action while the new English mix is not nearly as effective and doesn’t match each hit and kick in the same fashion as the original soundtrack.

Bearing all of that in mind, when viewed on its own merits the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is decent enough. The front soundstage is well-balanced with the surrounds being used to good effect where appropriate and dialogue is always clearly understood. Dynamic range is a bit limited so don’t expect too much in the way of deep bass. It’s a solid soundtrack and the English dubbing is worlds better than most such voice over work but, like with every other Hong Kong movie released by Dimension Films, the lack of the original soundtrack is a real shame.

As for extras, "The Legend of Drunken Master" offers a nice, six minute interview with Jackie Chan entitled "Behind the Master" in which he discusses making the film. The interview is accompanied by clips from a number of Jackie’s movies. Also included on the DVD are twelve full screen trailers for other Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies distributed by Dimension Films. Oddly enough, the trailer for "The Legend of Drunken Master" is not among them.

One final caveat — the domestic release of "The Legend of Drunken Master" deletes the final few seconds of the movie featuring a very drunk Wong Fei Hung displaying the after-effects of all the industrial alcohol he downed during his final fight. It’s a pretty tasteless scene and its absence in no way detracts from the film.

"The Legend of Drunken Master" surely ranks near the top of any list of the greatest martial arts movies. Featuring Jackie Chan at his best, a fine supporting cast, and expertly choreographed fight scenes, the film itself is above reproach. For those unfamiliar with this particular genre, please check your reality at the door and prepare yourself for some outlandish fun. The first shock comes from the fact that Jackie Chan is a 40-year-old actor playing a 20-year-old character and he looks much older than his stepmother and about as old as his father. The film also careens back and forth from historical drama to rousing slapstick comedy. This is standard fare for Hong Kong films put may come as a surprise to those who are new to this unusual style of filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the DVD is not nearly as flawless as the film. While the image quality is quite good, the decision to include only the English dubbed soundtrack is unfortunate and many fans will decide to pass on this purchase for that reason alone. As discussed above, I personally don’t feel that the exclusion of the Cantonese soundtrack warrants missing out on this otherwise enjoyable film but I certainly can’t fault those who feel differently. I personally give the DVD a strong recommendation — but with some serious reservations.