"Drunken Master" - Chan's first big worldwide hit - is loaded with slapstick comedy and inventive tomfoolery, which is almost enough to make help the audience overlook the slipshod production values. (This was Jackie Chan - The Early Years, remember.)
"Drunken Master," initially released in 1978, was also the movie that put Chan over the top as Asia's new master of movie mayhem, not just filling the gap left by Bruce Lee's death but also invigorating, if not reinventing the genre.
Surprisingly, "Drunken Master" is, on the surface, little more than a reworking of a Chan film from the previous year, the 1977 "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" (which played at the Tower Theater last week).
In "Snake," Chan was a young, dull-witted janitor at a martial-arts school who was taunted by one of the teachers (Huang Cheng-Li) and eventually was taken under the wing of an older master (Yuen Hsiao-Tien) who helped him discover his talent for comic kick-box-ing.
In "Drunken Master," Chan is the young, irreverent son of a martial-arts schoolmaster, who is taunted by one of the teachers (Huang again) and eventually is taken under the wing of an older master (Simon Yuen) who helps him discover his talent for comic kickboxing.
But there are also some profound differences. First and foremost, where "Snake" featured numerous one-on-one combat sequences with other martial-arts performers, they are absent in "Drunken Master" - it's all Jackie all the time.
This is also the first film where Chan felt free enough to employ slapstick skits that did not rely on kick-'em-up violence, such as a scene in a restaurant where Chan, after speedily downing a multi-course meal, tries to leave without paying his bill. (Later, when the inevitable fight does break out, Chan is punched in the stomach until he upchucks the meal - a bit of business that would make Jim Carrey proud.)
But most importantly, this is the film where Chan's confidence in his unique mix of comedy and martial arts, his gracefully choreographed slapstick-kung fu fighting style and natural athleticism, really began to blossom.
On the down side, "Drunken Master" (initially titled "Drunken Monkey in a Tiger's Eye") is obviously a very low-budget effort. (Watch "Drunken Master II" after this one and you'll see an incredible leap in production quality.)
And there are places where Chan's immature, cocky character is ridiculously clownish . . . though no sillier than the silly sound effects during the fight scenes, that leather-slap, bullwhip-crack we hear whenever someone is hit by a fist or a foot. (You may also notice that the relationship between Chan and his mentor looks an awful lot like Daniel and Miyagi in "The Karate Kid," though that film came about six years after "Drunken Master.")
And these days, some audience members may object to the fighting method that saves the day - the more inebriated Chan gets, the better his "drunken boxing" becomes.
Politically incorrect? Yes. But it's also awfully funny, if you can just think of it as a karate twist on Red Skelton's old "Guzzler's Gin" routine.
Though unrated, "Drunken Master" is in PG-13 territory, for violence and a few scattered profanities.