DRUNKEN MONKEY (2004) review

When Liu Chia-Liang, the legendary director/actor of the Shaw Brothers’ heyday, directed Drunken Monkey in 2003, he was coming off a nearly ten-year hiatus from movies, having last directed (and butted heads with) Jackie Chan in the indisputable classic Drunken Master II. He was 67 years-old and the kind of costumed martial arts movie he had been famous for (like My Young Auntie, Mad Monkey Kung Fu or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, to name only a few) had been out of fashion for a long time. Indeed, thrillers about undercover cops or cgi-heavy action extravaganzas were all the rage, and Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo were working mostly overseas. Sure, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero had triumphed domestically as well as internationally, but they represented painterly wire-fu rather than the more down-to-earth, blistering brand of kung fu that Liu had been famous for.

And so those elements of context are important to better situate the source of Drunken Monkey underachieving nature : that it is not a lazy or unoriginal retread, but rather a lovingly produced hommage that is sadly often misguided, and doomed to feel anachronic. The story in itself is passable, a patchwork of the tropes from the films of Liu Chia Liang’s heyday. Man Bill (Liu Chia Liang) is the head of a delivering company who one day helps out a detective (Gordon Liu) who is trying to unravel an opium ring in the region. But soon Man Bill realizes his own company is involved, including his brother (Chi Kuan Chun). After a ferocious fight during which he takes on dozens of adversaries at the same time, he is left for dead in the river, where a young woman (Shannon Yao) finds him. Fast forward a year, and we meet two students (Jacky Wu Jing and Lau Wing Kin) who by a quirk of genealogy are great uncle and nephew though they’re the same age, and who are working on a handbook of the famous ‘drunken monkey’ techniques of kung fu. When they hear a rumour that Man Bill, who was considered a grand master of this style, might still be alive, they set out to find him and implore him to take them as pupils. But in the process, they unwittingly lead the way for Man Bill’s old enemies to find him and take care of him for good.

This is a predictable story all the way through, and though it is told in the heartfelt way of a nostalgic hommage, it would have benefited from a few winks to make both the dead-seriousness of its drama and the juvenile nature of its humor more palatable to today’s audiences. Still, as the cantankerous but highly-skilled Man Bill, Liu Chia Liang provides the film with a strong anchor. For a 67 year-old man he is still remarkably agile, too : though he’s obviously doubled for the dicier stunts and moves, many frontal shots and tracking shots show that he is indeed still a man of speed and precision, and that in itself is a joy to see. Too bad he retired from acting again after this film and a role in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords. The other star of the film is Jacky Wu Jing, at the time still a relatively unknown quantity in the world of cinema, and his presence here in the other big fighting role equates the film with a passing of the torch in a way, as if Liu Chia Liang were singling out Wu as the worthiest to be the next big martial arts star. Though it has not happened quite yet, Wu does have the charisma and skills to make it, and in this film he exhibits both in spades, although he really overplays the comedy.

And that is, in a way, the cardinal sin of a film that features good fighting not only by Liu Chia Liang and Jacky Wu Jing, but also Gordon Liu and newcomer Shannon Yao : it leans too much on really silly comedy, delivered in cringe-worthy fashion by Lau Wing Kin and his mother. Trite though it may be in a way, the betrayal/revenge plot at least has some emotional pull and yields some excellent fight scenes, especially in the beginning when Man Bill fiercely fends off dozens of opponents, and in the climactic fight that justifies the use of the word ‘drunken’ in the title. Too bad when the fighting stops, the film becomes a tiring showcase for comedians who wouldn’t get a single laugh from a bunch of 5 years-old kids.

Long Story Short : The eternally dynamic Liu Chia Liang’s hommage to himself in a way, Drunken Monkey wastes valuable fighting time by devoting too much of its running time to annoying-as-hell comedy. **

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