Review: Drunken Master (1978)

Starring Jackie Chan, Simon Yuen, Hwang Jiang Lee, Linda Lin, Hsia Hsu, Sunny Yuen

Fight choreography: Yeun Woo Ping

Directed by Yeun Woo Ping

After the success of Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie Chan finally had a hit. A small one, but a hit nevertheless. For him to become a star, though, it would take a bonafide smash to jump him into the upper echelon of Chinese stars. Lucky for him, his next film would do just that, taking a revered character often played by Kwan Tak-Hing (over 75 times!), and presenting him in a fashion never seen: as a player, street hustler, and all around jerk. Golden Harvest took a chance on changing such a beloved character so drastically, but it would pay off for everyone involved…

Jackie Chan stars as Wong Fei-Hung, son of local revered kung fu Master Wong Kei-Ying. He knows kung fu-but not as well as he should, being taught by his fathers’ appointed assistant teacher, and takes enjoyment out of tormenting the incompetent teacher (really, why is this guy teaching anyone outside of grade-schoolers?) with practical jokes, and later, in an act that puts Wong Kei-Ying at his wits end, finds Fei-Hung hitting on a young girl, only to get into a fight with her mother, who turns out to be his aunt and cousin, whom he has never met. To make matters worse, he finds a local rich douchy guy that’s even more of an ass than Fei-Hung is. After he beats up the guy for being a dick, Wong Kei-Ying has had enough. More training is necessary, but not the kind he can give his wayward son, and so he calls on Beggar So (Simon Yuen) to come and teach Fei-Hung the art of Drunken Boxing, lessons that have been know to cripple many students…

Unbeknownst to them, Wong Kei-Ying’s life is in danger from a killer nicknamed Thunderleg (Hwang Jiang Lee) , a superkicker who’s hired to kill the elder Wong by a business rival. Can Wong Fei Hung learn the art of Drunken Boxing in order to go toe to toe with Thunderleg and save his father?

Drunken Master moves along at a brisk pace, with the direction by Yuen Woo Ping filled with as much energy as the performance by Jackie Chan, who shines here as the young mischievous Fei-Hung, leaning into the kung-fu comedy that would go on to define his career. Simon Yuen (Woo-Ping’s father!) would also burn himself into memory for all time as the “old Drunken Master” (or Ol’ Dirty Bastard for you Wu Tang Clan fans) that permeates other films to video games to this day. Hwang Jiang Lee would cement himself as one of the great “superkickers” of his day and become the blueprint for many of Jackie Chan’s villains: martial artists who are far better pure fighters than the film’s hero, leaving audiences unsure of how Jackie will win the day.

The fight choreography is a master class in pacing, length, acrobatics and timing. Yuen Woo Ping would cement himself here as one of the greatest fight choreographers of all time, leaning into everything Jackie and each fighter does best, and creates amazing fights where everyone gets to shine within the confines of the characters and story. The first fight between Jackie and his skirt-fighting aunt is short but magnificent, becoming an appetizer to the main dish, which include Wong Fei Hung versus a tremendous staff fighter, one of the best “kata” scenes ever put on film, and some next-level training moments, all leading up to his final duel with Thunderleg, an epic fight that shows off just how lethal Drunken Boxing can be…if he can only figure out Miss Ho…

Kiai-Kick’s Grade: 10

Drunken Master is without a doubt one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, bar none. A terrific comedic performance by Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen, and amazing fight choreography by Woo Ping that’s hard to beat even today, Drunken Master is on another level that few will ever reach!