Miramax's decision to distribute a six-year-old Jackie Chan film isn't that difficult to figure out. Given the Hong Kong action star's Stateside track record, the minimal investment in releasing rights and marketing may result in a box-office return to rival that of an original project.
No matter that "The Legend of Drunken Master," a.k.a.. "Drunken Master 2," is marred by subpar dubbing, a plot that serves as little but filler between the fight scenes, and the nastiest onscreen stereotyping of British characters since "The Patriot."
Chan's fans should relish the opportunity to glimpse their hero in the days before his success at American multiplexes. But those viewers and newcomers alike will have to survive the dopey dialogue and slim story to be rewarded with balletic, inventively choreographed fight sequences and comic relief that works about as often as it doesn't. It's impossible to keep one's eyes off Chan's perpetual-motion antics as he neatly dispenses with the legions of enemies he finds in this tale of turn-of-the-century China.
Chan's Wong Fei-Hung is a Chinese folk hero who has been immortalized in more than 200 films. (In that time, the character has been played by Jet Li and many others.) As legend has it, Wong was a Robin Hood-type figure who used his mastery of multiple kung fu styles -- including one in which the fighter feigns inebriation -- to help the poor and waylay their powerful enemies. Chan's assumption of the role in 1979's "Drunken Master" (his commercial breakthrough) saw him depicting Wong's tutelage in the ways of so-called drunken boxing.
The sequel begins with a long, exuberant fight between Wong and an old Manchu soldier (director Lau Ka Leung, then 60). It's a drawn-out clash that spills from atop a train to its underside and into a nearby field. Returning home, Wong engages in a struggle with his physician father, (Ti Lung, only eight years Chan's senior) over the validity of drunken boxing. Dad considers it an inferior art, while Junior imagines the technique to be cutting-edge. Wong's stepmom (played to impressive comedic effect by a sharp Anita Mui), isn't in sympathy with her husband on the issue.
The narrative -- what there is of it -- concerns the efforts of the British ambassador and his underlings to secretly ship ancient Chinese treasures out of the country. But it's probably best to forget about all that and instead revel in the fluidity and precisely timed movements of the fight sequences. Wong uses a combination of kicks, chops, body flips, oddball swaggering and, at one point, oral flame-throwing to defeat baddies played by the muscular Low Houi Kang (Chan's real-life bodyguard) and the agile Andy Lau.
For fans of the genre, a sequence set in a working steel mill -- wherein the star takes a real-life tumble onto a bed of hot coals -- may be worth the price of admission. Others will consider it a last-minute highlight in a film with too little to offer.