Year of release: 2003
Genre: kung fu
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Stars: Lau Kar-Leung, Wu Jing, Shannon Yao Yao, Chik Kun Kwan, Chiang Chun Wan, Lau Wing Kin, Gordon Liu, Li Hai Tao
Rated IIB for violence and drug/alcohol use
Version reviewed: Celestial VCD
Ever since the success of 1998's The Storm Riders, there has been an increasing trend in Hong Kong martial arts films to use computers to enhance the combatants' abiltites (or lack thereof) in a process that has come to be known (somewhat derivately) as "computer fu". While many of these computer fu movies have enjoyed success at the box office, critics and fans from all over the world have decried the practice because it seems to have watered down the kung fu genre. Some of the harshest opposition to computer fu film-making has come from various "old-school" stars and stuntmen, who feel that they have been pushed out of the industry, since now any prettyboy can look like a fighting machine with the right equipment behind him. One of the biggest critics has been Lau Kar-Leung, who is best known to western audiences for his work on seminal films such as 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Pedicab Driver and Drunken Master II. Can he take this return to the screen for the Shaw Brothers studio and make it "the first real martial arts movie of the new millennium" (as the promo materials have it)?
Drunken Monkey is set in 1930's China, with Lau Kar-Leung playing a courier named Wa Biao (translated as "Man Bill" in the subtitles), whose mastery of Monkey Fist (or "Monkeyish Fist" as the subs have it -- hey, at least the subtitles have that old-school flavor) helps his company gain a repuation for safe and quick deliveries of priceless artifacts. Unfortunately, some of the people in his company are not content with merely being couriers and have taken to smuggling opium. When Biao finds out about this, he tries alerting the authorities, but not before his former comrades beat him and leave him for dead. Eventually, Biao is found by a girl named Mandy (Shannon Yao Yao), who nurses him back to health. A year later, a pair of young men come looking for Biao in order to learn Monkey Fist. After their discovery of the old master, Biao's rivals set out to kill him once and for all.
This film, as mentioned before, was supposed to be a return to old-school action, and it does work on some levels. The action sequences, for the most part, are very good. It was indeed refreshing seeing people actually looking as if they were fighting instead of mimicking moves in front of a blue screen. While the action isn't terribly inventive (except for one part where the combatants used a briefcase full of booze in order to get the titular "drunken monkey" powers) and there are a few techincal faults here and there (i.e., shots that don't match and some too-obvious wirework in parts), it is solid and shows why Lau Kar-Leung, even at his advanced age, is still a force to be reckoned with in HK martial arts movies.
Unfortunately, Drunken Monkey also falls prey to some of the faults that seemed to pop up in many old-school kung fu movies, namely a generic script and dependence on dopey comedy. I can forgive the faults in the script, since it really only serves to bridge the action sequences in a movie like this, but the attempts at comedy are really horrible and bog down the middle portion of the film. Things aren't as bad as Lau's Drunken Master III, but he is most definitely a better fight co-ordinator than a director. Overall, though, while Drunken Monkey doesn't quite capture the magic of the old-school classics, at least it's a step in the right direction. Frankly, I don't know how many more movies featuring pop stars tossing out fireballs or jumping over buildings I can take, and Drunken Monkey was a nice break from that.
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