1994, 102 minutes, 35mm, in Cantonese with English subtitles
Directed by: Lau Kar-leung & Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung, Lau Kar-leung, Bill Tung, Mars, Chin Kar-lok, Ken Lo, Ho Sung-Park, Vincent Tuataane
City Hunter and Crime Story made decent money at the box office, but Jackie seemed to be floundering in the public eye. Both movies had flaws, one relentlessly grim the other relentlessly manic, and the word was going around that the now-41-year-old Jackie Chan was over as an action star. Hong Kong audiences didn’t love him as much as they used to, he’d lost his martial arts chops, he couldn’t connect. Jackie was determined to prove them all wrong. Doubling down, he returned to Drunken Master, one of the first movies that made him a star, and to take him back to his roots he teamed up with the most hardcore, old school martial arts director alive, Lau Kar-leung. And, to make the risk even bigger, he decided to depict one of China’s legendary folkheroes, Wong Fei-hung.
Since Jackie first played Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master back in 1978, Tsui Hark had cast Jet Li in his Wong Fei-hung series, Once Upon a Time in China, turning out a string of blockbuster movies that reinvented the character. In Tsui’s hands, Wong Fei-hung became a stalwart avatar of Confucian virtues who tried to hold onto Chinese traditions while confronting Western progress. Jackie’s Wong Fei-hung was up to no good, always slacking, always getting in trouble, constantly getting drunk and getting in fights. It was a big risk.
To play his dad, Jackie and Lau cast Ti Lung, a superstar of the Shaw Brothers era, and to play his stepmom they cast Cantopop diva, Anita Mui, who was younger than Jackie. With Lau Kar-leung playing a Chinese officer, the casting was finished. No massive star lists, just a Shaw Brothers patriarch, a pop star diva, an old school kung fu master, and Jackie Chan. Shooting in Shanghai was fraught and, out of respect for Lau, Jackie let him stay in charge of the production, but there was no denying that he was frustrated by Lau’s insistence on authentic martial arts filmed authentically. When the shoot moved back to Hong Kong to shoot the enormous final fight, Jackie removed Lau from the movie, directed the end-fight himself, then went back and re-edited the film.
The result is what many claim to be the greatest Hong Kong action movie ever made. Despite their problems, Lau and Jackie bring out the best in each other. The fights feel real, like we’re seeing actual martial artists show off their skills, rather than movie stars acting. The set pieces are gritty and have an emotional pull that feels like something is really at stake. And there is no disputing the chemistry between the cast. Anita Mui almost steals the show with her motor-mouth act, but Ti Lung holds things down with his gravitas, while Lau Kar-leung still shines as a scrappy, noble military officer. Considered by fans to be the last “real” Jackie Chan movie, any way you look at it, it’s a triumph.