The Legend Of Drunken Master

on October 20, 2000 by Wade Major
   The longstanding Miramax practice of "tailoring" foreign-made movies for American ("Queen Margot," "Mediterraneo," "The Double Life of Veronique," "The Horseman on the Roof," etc.) has rarely been given its proper due, partly because too few Americans have ever seen the original versions to make proper comparisons. Hong Kong martial arts and action films, however, are a different matter, with the often egregious butchering inflicted on the older films of Jackie Chan and Jet Li rightfully earning the likes of New Line and Miramax considerable scorn from fans.

   Miramax has been especially culpable in this regard, seemingly deeming the more commercial Jackie Chan library as not sufficiently "artistic" to merit the relatively limited respect accorded other foreign films. Released through their "genre" label, Dimension, these films have, in most cases, been so horrifically altered from Chan's original vision that fans have disowned them completely. In the case of the new "The Legend of Drunken Master," previously released in 1994 under its original title "Drunken Master 2," the alterations are surprisingly few, though no less infuriating. That the film still manages to entertain is a tribute to Chan's original vision, not Miramax's revision.

   The story, for those unfamiliar with the "Drunken Master" saga, features Chan reprising the 1978 "Drunken Master" role that made him famous (directed by future "The Matrix" choreographer Yuen Wo Ping) as legendary turn-of-the-century freedom fighter Wong Fei-Hong. One of the most popular figures in Cantonese history, Wong has been played by countless actors over the decades, including Jet Li in the "Once Upon a Time in China" series. What sets Chan's Wong apart is the depiction of the hero as an impetuous yet talented youth specializing in the art of "drunken boxing," a kind of boozy Popeye who is especially lethal when actually drunk. The narrative loosely mimics the structure of Hitchcock films like "North by Northwest" with the unsuspecting Wong accidentally drawn into a web of intrigue centering on the illegal smuggling of precious Chinese artifacts. Along the way, he engages good guys and bad guys, sorting out the facts before finally taking sides and winning the day for patriotism and justice.

   Though minimal, the Miramax changes are still irritating--dubbed dialogue (with Chan handling his own dubbing), a new soundtrack and simply horrible end-title music. The lackluster new Michael Wandmacher score will be particularly insulting to those who regard the original Wai Lap Wu piece as one of the best ever composed for a Hong Kong film. It's a subtly racist alteration exceeded only by the film's unjustifiable R rating from the MPAA, an affront to a film whose artfully entertaining fist-fights pale in comparison to the gun-fueled PG-13-rated violence of James Bond spectaculars. It is of minor consolation that Miramax's editorial deletions are limited mainly to the shot which originally ended the film, a controversial joke that appeared to mock the mentally retarded.

   Amazingly, the film's pivotal fight sequences still resonate, all the more impressive in light of the fact that Chan, nearly 40 at the time, was convincingly portraying a character roughly half his age. The opening fight, in which he and the film's credited director, the legendary Lau Ka Leung, do battle underneath a stationary train is a classic, setting the stage for a number of memorable encounters to follow, including the famed "hatchet gang" fight and the stunning showdown against Chan's favorite on-screen opponent and real-life bodyguard, kickboxing champion Ken Lo.

   Thankfully, one need not suffer through Miramax's condescending revision of what was already a near-perfect film. The original "Drunken Master 2" is widely available on import DVD. Embracing the former and shunning the latter sends a message to arrogant second-guessers that all films, no matter their origin, deserve to be seen as originally envisioned or not at all.    Starring Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung and Lau Ka Leung. Directed by Lau Ka Leung. Written by Edward Tang and Tong Man Ming. Produced by Eric Tsang, Edward Tang and Barbie Tung. A Dimension release. Action. Rated R for violent content. Running time: 102 min.

Tags: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung, Lau Ka Leung, Directed by Lau Ka Leung, Written by Edward Tang, Tong Man Ming, Produced by Eric Tsang, Edward Tang, Barbie Tung, A Dimension, classic, piovtal, fist-fights, smuggling

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