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Case Number 1994: Warner’s ‘Drunken Master 2’ Blu-ray

26/10/21 cityonfire.com

Drunken Master 2 has finally received a worthy release on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Bros., with its Warner Archive Collection release, finally restoring the Cantonese version uncut. It now feels like the right time to examine this film in the cold light of day, as it has split opinion with Kung Fu and Jackie enthusiasts, ever since grainy versions were available on pirate VHS in the mid ‘90s. Is this the greatest modern Kung Fu film ever made or a complete mess that squandered its potential. I open this up to the opposing councils…

The Prosecution

Despite the fantastic action on show, Drunken Master 2 is a poor film, both tonally and structurally. We are introduced to Wong Fei hung (Jackie Chan) at a chaotic train station accompanied by his stoic father Wong Kei-ying (Ti Lung) and his comedy dogsbody Tso (Chi-Kwong Cheung). Immediately he is acting like the same immature fool from the ’78 original, despite clearly being 40 years old, as he tries to smuggle goods onto a train so they don’t have to pay tax. What follows is a brilliant opening sequence where Wong faces off against original director Lau Kar-leung, first utilising hung gar and then spear vs sword. Unfortunately, we then get an hour of Jackie and his step Mum (Anita Mui, who was only in her early 30s here, which feels jarring) trying to conceal things from his Dad, in the first instance, passing off a tree root for ginseng when they realise it was switched on the train in error, and then his Mum’s gambling habits. 

The dynamics feel completely skewed here, why not just have Jackie and Anita as husband and wife, surely Wong Fei-hung should be past the petulant child stage? This is compounded even further when Chan is eventually punished for letting a client use a potentially dangerous root instead of the ginseng. As described by critic James Berardinelli –‘some sequences are laced with slapstick comedy while others are acutely uncomfortable as a result of torture and the nearly-abusive disciplining of a grown child by a parent.’ When Lau Kar-leung eventually turns up again, your left thinking – what have I just witnessed? The eventual story of foreigners stealing Chinese treasures could have easily been explored 60 minutes earlier instead of the dull, unfunny sequences we have been forced to witness. Even though the original film was driven by comedy, the scenes worked within the context of a young rebellious Wong, what was needed here was evolution, which we don’t get.

We eventually fall into the plot of Wong having to become a hero and take back the Chinese treasures, housed at the steel factory that is exploiting the workers. A nice idea that is only really introduced at the last minute. Our resident evil gweilo who owns the factory, also wants to buy the land where Wong Kei-ying’s legendary Po Chi Lam clinic is situated. This sets up the final action sequence, which will not be mentioned here as it’s simply excellent. However we never see the evil gweilo again, we just have to assume he just got away with it, and is the clinic now safe? The arrival of Bill Tung as a government official with a banner makes you think it is, but it’s not clear, in a clearly rushed ending. 

This leads us onto the most egregious scene and probably the only necessary cut made by Miramax to a Chinese film in its history (it was removed from The Legend of the Drunken Master release in 2001) where we are told Wong’s brain has been affected by all the alcohol and he is temporary blind. Jackie then proceeds to practice ‘retard Kung Fu’ in the most politically incorrect way imaginable as the film freezes and concludes. This was clearly an attempt by Jackie to show the evils of alcoholic abuse, it just couldn’t have been handled any worse. Will he even recover from this, or is Wong Fei-hung permanently damaged in this iteration of the character? What a sad way to bow out.

Ladies and Gentlemen I ask you: is the action worth sitting through such a poorly constructed film, where the disagreements and eventual decision of Lau Kar-leung to leave production are plastered all over this tonal mishmash? What we have here is the opportunity for the greatest Kung Fu film ever made, squandered, drowned in its own ginseng tea. Prosecution rests.

 

'Jackie then proceeds to practice ‘retard Kung Fu’ in the most politically incorrect way imaginable...'

 
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The Defence

My right honourable friend clearly underestimates the talent on show in Drunken Master 2, and its significance as the only modern Kung Fu film Chan has made, complete with some of the most wholesome action of his career. He brushed over the opening exchange between screen legend Lau Kar-leung and Jackie Chan, in which they spar using classical hung gar Kung Fu in three locations. Firstly the cramped confines under a steam train and then under a bridge, Lau using his spear form to outmanoeuvre Chan’s tiger sword. Then finally they go toe-to-toe in a barn, and Chan gets to show us his Drunken Boxing skills for the first time, what a sequence! Yes of course some of the comedy falls flat in the next section of the film, but has my friend never seen a Hong Kong action movie, as they always rely on sections of comedy to fill out the runtime? The best films balance this most affectively, such as Mr. Vampire, whereas even classics can get bogged down in comedic set pieces and esoteric cultural norms, exhibits 1 and 2 –  Iron Monkey and The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, the latter featuring a woman falling in love with a woman dressed as a man. This is what you sign up for when you watch foreign films and cutting these scenes detracts from the art form. Even though Drunken Master 2’s story isn’t the strongest, we do get a fantastic cast, sparring with one another. Jackie Chan, Ti Lung and Anita Mui work brilliantly well together and Jackie fits the mould of the rebellious fool who must stand up for what’s right. 


Finally, Jackie gets to let loose as he uses his Drunken Boxing against a group of thugs. What transpires is a wonderful mix of traditional styles with modern editing and nicely concealed wire work, accompanied by a brilliant side story, featuring Anita Mui throwing him expensive wine to improve his performance. Wong Fei-hung’s dressing down by his Dad also provides the film with the ‘Ordeal’ of the ‘Hero’s Journey’, forced to come back stronger and fuelled by the return of Lau Kar-leng’s government agent, ready to take part in another astonishing action sequence – the tea house fight. Sometimes forgotten about, Jackie teams up with Lau Kar-leng to fight off hundreds of axe wielding maniacs, a sequence that involves set destruction, weapon work and no Drunken Boxing, holding this back for the finale. This fight is long, intricate and must have taken weeks if not months to film. It’s also a fitting death for Kar-leng, showing that only a gang of warriors were strong enough to defeat him. Take a deep breath because this was only the build up to the finale.

Before we get to the most famous of all the action, we are treated to two other great set-pieces. Firstly Wong takes on a French fighter with a nasty chain, dispatching him with the use of a white fan and flaming kick. These sequences were too dark and fuzzy on the pirate versions but look great on the new Blu-ray. Then Jackie must dispatch a group of lackeys armed with metal rods, while the new foreman and kicking maestro Ken Lo literally throw fire at him. In a show of true heroics, Jackie stops to pour dirt over a henchmen burning on the floor and gets kicked for his troubles, true character building in action. Famously Ho-Sung Pak, who plays the pyro loving foreman of the steel factory, was going to fight Chan but got injured, his substitute turned out to be inspired.


Ken Lo unleashes a barrage of deadly leg strikes with a speed and ferocity not seen before or since. Like all Jackie Chan’s best end fights, he is the under dog and looks like no match for his adversary. If it would please the court I’m showing a picture of Benny Urquidez and Hwang In-shik from Wheels on Meals and The Young Master respectively, to bolster my point. Jackie has to use the power of Drunken Boxing to break Ken’s will. This is done with subtle use of wire work, intricate back-and-forth exchanges and the use of techniques foreshadowed earlier. One of the greatest and simplest segments, is when Wong dodges a kick by falling back onto the wall, only to push himself back with a punching strike to Ken’s head. As encapsulated by Robert Ebert ‘Coming at the end of a film filled with jaw-dropping action scenes, this extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: It may not be possible to film a better fight scene.’ Defence rests.


The Prosecution

I noice you didn’t mention the ‘retard Kung Fu” ending?

The Defence

The Defence agrees with the Prosecution on this point.

Well, thank you for presenting your cases. One thing is for sure, this is a unique movie that brought together a bunch of actors at the top of their game. Is it a masterpiece or an unfunny mess with great action sequences? It’s time for you the jury to decide…