A double dose of Jackie Chan’s comedic martial arts auteurism

“Drunken Master” (1978) and “Police Story 2” (1988) screen back to back at UW Cinematheque on August 4 starting at 6 p.m.
A simple image collage that features a scene from "Drunken Master" (top) in which Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) trains by balancing hot cups of tea on his shoulders while crouching over a pointed stick. His father's servant Ko Choi (Dean Shek) taunts him with a feather duster, threatening to tickle him. The bottom image captures Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) crouching on top of a moving bus in "Police Story 2."
A simple image collage that features a scene from “Drunken Master” (top) in which Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) trains by balancing hot cups of tea on his shoulders while crouching over a pointed stick. His father’s servant Ko Choi (Dean Shek) taunts him with a feather duster, threatening to tickle him. The bottom image captures Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) crouching on top of a moving bus in “Police Story 2.”

“Drunken Master” (1978) and “Police Story 2” (1988) screen back to back at UW Cinematheque on August 4 starting at 6 p.m.

One of the biggest action heroes of the 20th century, Jackie Chan has amassed an enormous body of work in his long career. Emerging from a mid-1970s sea of Bruce Lee imitators, Chan quickly established himself as a singular talent, directing his own films and leading a highly disciplined stunt team. Infusing the martial arts genre with his Chinese opera training and a willingness to put himself in physical danger, Chan stood out as an innovator. While Western audiences know him best for turn-of-the-millennium crossover hits like Rush Hour (1998), Chan had already been making his own films in Hong Kong for 20 years. A double feature at UW Cinematheque on Thursday, August 4, features two films, made a decade apart, that chart Chan’s evolution as an artist—Drunken Master (1978), the kung-fu comedy that established him as a rising star (at 6 p.m.), and Police Story 2 (1988), made at the height of Chan’s powers as an unstoppable actor-director (at 8 p.m.). Both will be shown in Cantonese with English subtitles. 

Loosely based on a Chinese folk hero, Drunken Master is one of the first films that let Chan’s goofy underdog persona shine. Chan plays Wong Fei-Hung, the ne’er-do-well son of a martial arts teacher. Frustrated by Wong’s troublemaking, his father Wong Kei-Ying (Kau Lam) hires a notoriously harsh martial arts master to straighten him out. Wong runs away from home, but during an attempt to dine and dash he meets his new teacher Beggar So (Yuen Siu-Tin), an elderly alcoholic with incredible fighting skills. So’s training regimen focuses on brutal, seemingly pointless strength-building exercises, but eventually he teaches Wong his secret drunken boxing technique—an unpredictable fighting style aided by drinking copious amounts of wine. Wong’s understanding of the style is put to the test when merciless assassin Thunderleg (Hwang Jeong-Lee) is hired to kill his father. Combining the historical martial arts genre with irreverent slapstick comedy, Drunken Master was a massive hit, turning Jackie Chan into a star overnight.

Drunken Master was the second of two films Chan made in 1978 with Yuen Siu-Tin and his son, director and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (the other being Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, which played at UW Cinematheque in March as part of a These Fists Break Bricks marathon). Its success was a huge boost to all of their careers. Drunken Master and Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow were Yuen’s first films as a director, but he was already regarded as one of Hong Kong’s greatest fight choreographers. Creating new fighting styles for each film, Yuen opted for entertainment value over realism, creating the perfect showcase for Chan’s agility and comic mugging. The film’s success got Chan a contract with Golden Harvest, giving the budding star bigger budgets and creative control over future projects. Yuen Siu-Tin would go on to revive his drunken beggar character for 15(!) more movies before his death in 1979, while Yuen Woo-Ping has continued to build his reputation as a master of fight choreography, working on high-profile projects like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kill Bill (2003), and The Matrix (1999) franchise.

By the mid-1980s, Jackie Chan had established himself as a multi-hyphenate action auteur, and Police Story 2 continues his trend of building bigger and more dangerous projects. In the original Police Story (1985), police inspector Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) is part of a unit trying to put crime boss Chu (Chor Yuen) behind bars. When Chu gets acquitted, he frames Chan for the murder of an undercover cop, and the embattled supercop has to go rogue to catch his nemesis. The film ends with one of Chan’s most legendary and dangerous set pieces, a glass-shattering battle through a shopping mall that culminates in Chan sliding down a six-story pole. Police Story 2 begins with Chan getting demoted by Superintendent Li (Kwok-Hung Lam) for all the property damage he caused during the previous film. Reduced to a motorcycle cop directing traffic, Chan’s situation gets even worse when Chu gets released from prison early. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Chu is determined to get revenge on the cop who arrested him, and sends sleazy henchman Ko (Charlie Cho) to harass Chan and his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung). Frustrated by the police’s inability to protect them from the constant threats, Chan quits the force and plans to take May on vacation, but a bombing at a shopping mall drags him back into action. Discovering that the bomb is part of an attempt to extort a real-estate corporation, Chan and his boss Uncle Bill (Bill Tung) lead a special unit to catch the elusive criminals.

Police Story 2 shows a refinement of Jackie Chan’s personal style, creating a vehicle perfectly tailored to his physical skills and underdog persona. Though he wisely didn’t try to top the first film’s death-defying finale, Police Story 2 has plenty of incredibly dangerous stunts and intricate fight choreography. Police Story was originally inspired by the failure of The Protector (1985), which transplanted Chan into a gritty American cop movie. Like Chan’s other attempts at breaking into Hollywood in the 1980s, The Protector played to none of Jackie’s strengths, as it  cast Chan as a Dirty Harry-type character instead of playing up his carefully assembled nice-guy image. Frustrated by this misstep, Chan designed the Police Story films to appeal to his domestic fanbase as well as an international action audience. Instead of a hard-boiled action hero, Chan’s character in Police Story is a relatable Everyman who struggles with failure and relationship troubles. Though she’s better known today for her work with Wong Kar-Wai, Maggie Cheung was an extremely popular comedic actor in Hong Kong thanks to her role in the Police Story films. A severely underdeveloped character, May is essentially the Olive Oyl of the franchise, alternately jealous or in need of rescue. Despite this, Cheung manages to fit some memorable screwball comedy into Police Story 2, such as the scene where she argues with a fleeing Chan through the police station changing room, communal showers, and finally into a bathroom stall without ever taking note of her surroundings.

Jackie Chan’s legacy has been tarnished over the last couple decades by shoddy films, questionable endorsement deals, and his fervent support of the Chinese government, but in his prime he was an undeniable force of nature. Drunken Master and Police Story 2 are just two of his films that set the standard for martial arts films of the era. Packed with whirlwind action and jaw-dropping stunts, they’re testaments to his talent and ability to charm audiences.

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