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Drunken Master

Columbia/Tri-Star // R // April 2, 2002
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 21, 2002 | E-mail the Author
After the passing of Bruce Lee in 1973, a fervent search went underway to find the next martial arts cinema hero. Jackie Chan, who may very well be the most popular actor outside of the United States, didn't get off to a spectacular start. The great majority of his early starring roles were dismal box office failures. Hopes weren't extraordinarily high for Zui Quan, which was released under a variety of titles, including Drunken Monkey In A Tiger's Eye and, most famously, Drunken Master. Though it was not the first movie to blend comedy and martial arts, Drunken Master was among the most successful. It immediately established Jackie Chan as an international superstar and almost single-handedly revitalized the lagging kung fu film industry. The 1978 film has not been treated kindly on DVD up until now. Front Row Entertainment's DVD has been compared to a battered VHS copy, and other editions suffer from heavy cropping. Columbia Tri-Star Home Video and Destination Films has taken it upon themselves to bestow upon Drunken Master the treatment it deserves, improving considerably over these earlier, flawed releases.

The plot is somewhat threadbare, but action is the centerpiece of Drunken Master, not character development. Jackie Chan stars as Wong Fei-Hong, a young man whose kung fu talent is severely offset by his lack of discipline. He's constantly getting into trouble, and his father's efforts to turn him around fail miserably. His final attempt is to have Fei-Hong taken under the wing of Su Hau-Chi, a legendary taskmaster whose martial arts lessons border on excessively cruel. Hau-Chi, despite his constant drunkenness (or, more accurately, because of it), is a gifted fighter with an unusual style. Fei-Hong, after much preparation, begins to master the art of drunken kung-fu (or, at least most of it), preparing him for a duel with an assassin who has Fei-Hong's father in his sights.

The battle sequences in Drunken Master may not be as amazing on a technical level or as refined as some of Chan's later work. Nonetheless, they remain in a class of their own, especially when compared to the largely lackluster output of copycat Hollywood efforts. The meticulously choreographed fights are lengthy, and, unlike all too many modern action movies, make up a hefty portion of the total running time. Not content with just causing jaws to drop with the skill of its performers, the battles in Drunken Master mix in a healthy dose of comedy. It comes as little surprise that this film was capable of propelling Jackie Chan to stardom, and the energy and skill he displays so frequently are incomparable. Though Chan would go on to follow a similar formula and improve upon it as time went on, Drunken Master holds up remarkably well after nearly twenty-five years. This DVD release of Drunken Master takes the important martial arts film and gives it a nice visual presentation, along with an excellent audio commentary from two prominent Hong Kong movie buffs.

Video: Drunken Master is a frequent victim of cropping. It was slashed nearly in half for television broadcasts, and even the anamorphic widescreen DVD releases from Hong Kong Legends and Medusa lopped a quarter of the image off the sides. Drunken Master makes full use of its 2.35:1 frame, and its original aspect ratio is presented in full on this 16x9 enhanced DVD.

All things considered, Drunken Master looks great. As is mentioned in the disc's audio commentary, for quite some time there was little interest in keeping these films in any sort of respectable condition, and the damage done over time is not easily undone. This print, which comes from Hong Kong, is probably the best that Drunken Master will ever realistically look. Sharpness and the level of detail both fluctuate to some extent throughout, and there's a fair amount of grain present throughout much of the film. The light speckling doesn't present much of an annoyance, and although flaws like translucent vertical lines do appear on occasion, it's to a far lesser extent than I would've expected. Black levels are also a little lacking. The palette isn't overflowing with vibrancy but seems to be far more accurately balanced than the washed-out look of the older Hong Kong films I've owned. It's evident that a decent amount of money was tossed at making Drunken Master look as good as it does, and barring another pricey restoration, this presentation would seem to be as good as it gets.

Audio: Drunken Master offers monaural audio in Cantonese and English. It was not filmed with synced audio, and since the English subtitles are merely a transcription of the English dub, I'm sure the argument could be made that there isn't a significant advantage to viewing the film in Cantonese. Hearing the original actors is important to me, even if few others agree, but the option to choose between the two languages is available for those who are interested. Neither of the tracks sound remarkably different in terms of quality. The stock sound effects used in seemingly every vintage Hong Kong movie are present here in their traditionally low fidelity. Dialogue is on the harsh side, as does the the sparsely used, tinny score. In other words, Drunken Master sounds exactly as it almost certainly has on Sunday afternoon kung-fu marathons on UHF stations over the past twenty years.

One curiosity is that the Cantonese audio goes in and out of English in the first hour or so. I thought perhaps there was some sort of glitch that this disc exploited on my Toshiba SD-3109 DVD player, but the same thing occurred on an Audiovox DVD-1500 as well as my DVD-ROM. No explanation is provided for this on the menu screens or packaging, so I'm unsure if this is representative of the best elements available or if there was a master error of some sort. (If this was covered in the commentary, I must've missed it. Apologies.) I would personally have preferred for any particularly battered portions of audio to be replaced with snippets from a Laserdisc or even (gasp!) VHS than to switch back and forth between languages.

Subtitles are also available in a variety of languages other than English, including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, and Thai.

Supplements: The box mentions an audio commentary by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers, neglecting to mention the presence of Jeff Yang, another prominent writer in the genre and the co-author of Jackie Chan's autobiography. Their discussion is really great, with the majority focusing on Chan and the indelible effect he and Drunken Master had on the industry and the martial arts genre. The passion these two very knowledgeable men have for Hong Kong cinema is infectious. Among the more memorable observations is the metaphor of Jean Claude Van Damme as the Ellis Island of Asian cinema, as quite a number of prominent directors' first American productions were Van Damme vehicles. Also touched on is the fact that Brett Ratner and other directors inspired by Hong Kong action flicks have a tendency to frame too tightly in fight scenes, attempting to duplicate the severely cropped movies they watched on television in the '80s. The two, particularly Meyers, also point out actors in the film and mention other works they've done. In some cases, that includes actors that may not have appeared, such as Bolo Yeung, who is possibly incorrectly credited as Gorilla on the Internet Movie Database. It's also revealed that the opening fight sequence was somewhere in the vicinity of five minutes longer, but that footage has more than likely been lose to the ravages of time. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this commentary, as it is one of precious few tracks I've listened to where the participants weren't directly involved with the film itself. Though much of what's discussed may be old hat for enthusiasts of martial arts films, there's a wealth of information for a novice like myself. Very well done.

Also included are trailers for Time And Tide and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Conclusion: Drunken Master is essential viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in martial arts cinema. The presentation, aside from the random lines of English dialogue interspersed throughout the Cantonese track, is more than fair and unlikely to ever significantly improve beyond this. The commentary track with Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang is first-rate and helps to make this DVD release from Columbia Tri-Star Home Video an easy recommendation.
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