There’s a scene in Sammo Hung’s MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS, a rollicking heist/western/kung fu movie from 1986 that is a go-to when I discuss the stunt-work being done in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In it, Yuen Biao, one of the stars of the film, does a front flip off of a burning three-story building, landing on the ground below. It’s shot well back, so the whole building is in the frame throughout the shot. There’s nowhere to hide. There are no edits. No air mattresses or piles of cardboard boxes. It’s just Yuen jumping off of a burning building. It’s not the most dramatic or even the most dangerous stunt from the 1980s but it’s so honest it’s one of my favorites to talk about. It provides a clear illustration of the unique combination of skill, authenticity and institutional fearlessness that made 1980s Hong Kong stunt work unique in the history of cinema.
At one point it was somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but I’ve long been a fan of Wong Jing, the director of CITY HUNTER. Both the embarrassment and the fandom deserve explanation.
The embarrassment is down to the fact that, at least at the time I was most heavily interested in Hong Kong Cinema, I was actively trying to get people to look beyond the more obvious aspects and get them to see what I was drawn to (transcendent genre cinema) and not just cheap thrills (even though there were plenty of those, too.) Wong Jing is defined by cheap thrills, so he didn’t really serve my purposes in that regard. These days Hong Kong style action is a standard and talent with Hong Kong roots are global superstars, so my worries on that front are all gone.
I’m free. FREE! Wong Jing’s movies are dumb fun!
Now, the fights.
A lot of words have been written about the finale of this film. That’s deserved. This centerpiece fight between Jackie and his real-life bodyguard Ken Lo is a brilliant, visceral classic. I’ve watched it five times this week and have seen it dozens of times over the past twenty years and I still notice little things about it that surprise me.
The finale is a pure distillation of everything Jackie had been doing since he’d started to take direct control of the action in his moves in the 1980s. While there’s not much in the way of props or acrobatics and the only stunt is Jackie jumping into a fire pit, the core elements of Jackie’s choreography are all present. It’s two physically gifted screen fighters going toe to toe for half a reel–a half a reel that took three months to shoot.
It might not look like it from the trailer or even after seeing the film, but DRUNKEN MASTER is a movie that has a surprising depth. Without context (imagine stumbling into a Chinatown theater in 1978) DRUNKEN MASTER is 90 minutes of goofy hijinks and mind-blowing martial arts action. Add in some context, however, and it also emerges as an important waypoint in the development of Hong Kong cinema. Which might be a bit of a surprise. It’s true, though. It really is. I swear.