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