- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2000

''The Legend of Drunken Master" reaches back into the Jackie Chan inventory for a Hong Kong-based comedy-spectacle of unspecified vintage and hit-and-miss quality.

The obvious rationale is three or four astonishing set pieces of stunt fighting. The first has Mr. Chan and his director, Lau Ka Leung, cast as a mysterious Manchu, dueling under a train. The next involves a boardwalk.

The final confrontation is a battle royal in a Shanghai steel mill, circa 1920s. During this strenuous finale, the star endures several forms of incineration and trades superlative legwork with the kickboxing virtuoso Ken Lo, whose resume includes a period when he served as Mr. Chan's personal bodyguard.

The title alludes to a fictionalized and presumably trivialized impression of a venerated historical figure, kung fu master Wong Fei-hung, whose specialties included a variant known as drunken boxing, in which feigned or actual inebriation enhances fighting prowess.

When Mr. Chan pretends to discover the art, as a scatterbrained and absurdly ingenuous Wong, often to the despair of his distinguished father (Ti Lung), the drunken tilt gives him an excuse to go very rubbery and silly while confounding adversaries.

Wong, who died in 1924, has been the inspiration for more than one Jackie Chan vehicle. Similar titles — "The Young Master" and "The Drunken Master" — extend back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, but "Legend" doesn't appear to be quite that venerable. Judging from the star's appearance, it dates from the past decade or so.

As a rediscovery, it doesn't equal "Operation Condor," which the Miramax subsidiary Dimension Films also refurbished for mainstream American release a few years ago. The energetic and inventive stunt scenes, however, are impressive. They require quite a bit of tolerance for rudimentary exposition and domestic farce. Ideally, one could set a watch to doze during the lame patches and return to full attention for the combative highlights.

Mr. Chan is supposedly set up for turmoil when he accompanies his father and a servant on a train journey. They cross the path of art thieves who have conspired to smuggle a precious object, a jade seal of the emperor, out of China. British imperial snobs and felons are prominent members of the conspiracy, including one whose voice is dubbed in unsavory homage to James Mason.

One of the cultural oddities for Americans may be Anita Mui as the hero's madcap stepmother, a diminutive but troublemaking loose cannon who needs to hide mah-jongg debts from her spouse and provokes the hero's first bout of drunken boxing by pitching bottles to him while he fends off numerous assailants.

Mr. Chan's comic pitch may bewilder Americans during much of the mom-and-dad interplay, and it doesn't seem funny at all when dad begins bashing Wong mercilessly in the wake of his first drunken episode.

All is forgiven when Mr. Chan goes into kinetic high gear, countering punches and dodging spear points and entrapping himself under tables and fighting off ax-wielding fanatics with a fraying bamboo staff and nicknaming favorite moves on the spur of the moment and generally springing back into action after refusing to go down for the count.

Mr. Chan the comic dervish guarantees enough good parts to outclass the slack and oppressive stuff that sometimes threatens to leave "Drunken Master" in a petrified condition.

TITLE: "The Legend of Drunken Master"RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, in the context of martial-arts combat spectacle; fleeting comic vulgarity; prolonged gag sequences predicated on extreme intoxication; interludes of domestic conflict in which a father and son trade extravagant punches)CREDITS: Directed by Lau Ka Leung. Screenplay by Edward Tang, Tong Man Ming and Yuen Chieh Chi. Martial-arts choreographers: Mr. Leung and Jackie Chan. Cinematography: eight credited names. Production design by Eddie Ma and Ho Kim Sing. Music by Michael Wandmacher.RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

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