The early 90s were a golden time for Hong Kong martial arts cinema, an almost endless barrage of increasingly impressive action films were released almost back to back, each new film trying its hardest to one-up the previous ones. Chia-Liang Liu's Drunken Master II [Jui Kuen II] is one of the ultimate classics of the era, but somewhat surprisingly it doesn't fully fit in with the other popular films of that time. It's been half a lifetime since I last watched Liu's masterpiece, so I figured a reacquaintance with one of the biggest martial arts flicks of the 90s was well overdue.
The 90s Hong Kong martial arts films were spearheaded by people like Jet Li, Woo-Ping Yuen and Hark Tsui. Drunken Master II on the other hand is a collaboration between Chia-Liang Liu and Jackie Chan, two individuals who never really fit into that particular scene. Director and action choreographer Liu was one of the most prominent Shaw Bros figures during the 70s, Jackie Chan established his very own brand of martial arts action in the following decade. Drunken Master II feels like a logical blend of these two universes, slightly updated for audiences of the 90s.
The first Drunken Master was a 70s collaboration between Woo-Ping Yuen and Jackie Chan, one of the pivotal films in the launch of Chan's stardom. It certainly wasn't the most polished martial arts film of that time, but the drunken style coupled with Chan's unique execution became legendary almost instantaneously. It took Chan quite a long time to continue the franchise, which proved to be a smart move as the time gap between both films helped to highlight the progression of the genre, making this a sequel that actually improves on the original.
Jackie Chan takes on the role of the legendary Wong Fei-hung. While traveling with his dad, he gets into a little skirmish with a thief on the train. In the bustle their luggage is switched, which puts Wong in the possession of the Emperor's seal. Back home, Wong tries to conceal that he lost his father's medicine, but the situation spirals out of control and Wong finds out about an operation that is planning to smuggle valuable Chinese treasures outside the country. His dad doesn't want Wong to get involved, but he's young and reckless, angering the criminal gang who is behind the operation.
The visuals are no doubt the biggest differentiator with other martial arts classics of its time. Liu's Shaw Bros background is still very apparent, especially when looking at the decors, the color story and the camera work. It looks almost nothing like the flashy, dynamic Hong Kong action cinema of the early 90s, though I will say that it looks quite a bit more polished when comparing it to its Shaw Bros predecessors. Luckily, the action cinematography is on point, with the editing and camera work combining to create some very energetic and impressive fights scenes.
The soundtrack is by far one of the weakest elements of the film. Hong Kong cinema rarely excels in film scores, martial arts films in particular are very traditional and unadventurous when it comes to the background music selection. It's not a particularly bad score, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember any of it afterwards, and it generally adds very little, if anything at all to the film. The best you can say about the music is that it throws some generic noise underneath the action scenes, making them appear a bit more eventful, but here's certainly some unused potential there.
Jackie Chan is the clear star of the film. While I'm not the biggest Chan fan, the man's talent for cinematic action is undeniable and the finale of Drunken Master II is probably one of his most impressive performances ever. There's such a visual improbability to his moves that it makes him an absolute joy to watch. Besides Chan, Liu himself also makes a notable appearance, Ti Lung is the other big Shaw Bros star in the cast, Anita Yuen is perfect as Lung's wife. There are other notorious actors in smaller parts (Andy Lau among others), but they're little more than glorified cameos. It's a cast that knows what they're doing, but ultimately they're all eclipsed by Chan.
Drunken Master II is a film that shines noticeably brighter whenever Liu puts his focus on the action. The comedy is a bit hit-and-miss, the drama is negligible, and the plot is nothing more than a lame excuse for some action scenes, but when Jackie Chan readies himself to kick some butt, the collab between Liu and Chan immediately starts paying off. It gets even better when Liu whips out the drunken style choreographies, resulting in one of the most kick-ass martial arts finales, an increasingly zany 15-minute action scene that still stands proud today.
If I'd be forced to choose, I'd go for the other martial arts films of that era, mostly because they offer more than just some impressive fight choreographies. Drunken Master II isn't quite as consistent, but it does deliver the goods. The pairing of Liu and Chan results in some of the coolest and frantic martial arts moments ever put on film, making it that much easier to forget about all the film's shortcomings. If you're not a fan of martial arts cinema it's not a film that will change your mind, but it's an essential watch for anyone who loves the creativity and skill that goes into a good fight sequence.