With his second directorial effort, we find injury prone, action/comedy deity immortal, Jackie Chan winding ever closer to kung-fu nirvana with his game changing masterpiece, Police Story – however, sometimes it’s easy to to forget the journey once we reach the destination and a prime example of this is Chan’s sophomore effort both in front of and behind the camera: The Young Master.
My education to Jackie’s world of jaw breaking violence and gut busting laughs actually started with Police Story which foolishly led me to believe that there was nowhere to go but down (arrogant teenager that I was), but after getting my own personal bullshit in check I finally started digging deeper.
And thank Christ I did, because if I had merely made do with efforts such as First Strike and Who Am I?, I might never have stumbled upon this awesome 1980 epic.
Dragon is a student in a martial arts school, but lives in the shadow of his brother, Tiger, who is a far more accomplished martial artist, but when the school enters into a Lion Dance competition against a rival school, Tiger obtains an injury that prevents him from competing. The hapless Dragon is thrust into his place, but before losing, he realises that his brother has actually faked the injury and has taken part in the dance for the other school and while Dragon is shamed for losing, Tiger is full on exiled for his duplicitous act.
Almost immediately, Tiger falls in with the rival school who turn out to be an exceptionally bad crowd who utilizes his Kung Fu skills to break loose a dangerous criminal known as Kam in order to stage a string a robberies, but while this goes on, a well-meaning Dragon heads out into the world hoping to bring his brother back to make amends.
Of course, what with this being a Jackie Chan joint, his mission goes astray almost immediately as he’s mistaken for a dangerous criminal and has to fight off a constant stream of lawmen as he searches for his wayward sibling, but his greatest obstacle seems to be the endless string of farcical misunderstandings he has with gruff, local police chief Sang Kung and his equally formidable son and daughter.
However, sooner or later, Dragon will have to go one on one with the sadistic Kam himself, who’s merest glare is equal to the force of a million, melodramatic crash zooms. Can this “mediocre” Kung Fu fighter somehow find a way to defeat a cruel, unbeatable foe with only a won’t-quit attitude and a fighting spirit as thick and voluminous as his hair-do?
Once of the coolest aspects of The Young Master is that it very much plays like a direct link from his past where he would play young students on the verge of becoming great in such classics as Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, to his more modern, game changing efforts such as Police Story and Dragons Forever. Watching the progression is nothing less than fascinating as you can see that the complexities of the humorous sequences easily matches that of the frenetic fisticuffs. Some viewers used to more straight forward martial arts extravaganzas may question the need for the constant scenes of mistaken identity and back and forth wordplay; but this is the very nature of the kind of filmmaker Jackie Chan is striving to be. The acrobatic brawls are sublime, ranging from our goofy hero making a rival look foolish while wielding nothing but a white fan to defeating two enemies thanks to his secret weapon of wearing a skirt. But the true wonder here isn’t just Chan’s impeccable comic timing and unfathomable athletic prowess; it’s actually the endearing lack of ego the man has when crafting a character who’s enjoyably a bit crap. Oh he’s crafty and remarkably competent for a student that’s constantly berated by his peers, but he’s blatantly no match for the villainous Kam who only seems to have been included for the need for a final boss to fight. Chan has no more interest in painting himself as a bad-ass hero as Charlie Chaplin would a smoldering romantic lead and this is never more evident than the magnificent final stand off our hero has with the film’s bad guy. Featuring Chan at his most gleefully masochistic, the brawl turns out to be one of the most gratifying final one-on-one’s Chan’s had outside his legendary battles with Benny Urquidez and serves up the kind of extended, sustained beatings usually reserved for the luckless heroes of a Sam Raimi film. In fact, after a mismatched bout that sees a overwhelmed Dragon absorb more punishment than an overworked crash test dummy, our protagonist only manages to come out on top by accidently becoming an impervious, super charged juggernaut when he accidentally drinks some water from an opium pipe. The final shots of our mangled, yet victorious hero being hailed as he returns home in a full body cast could possibly be the most Jackie Chan-esque joke, Jackie Chan has ever staged and it perfectly captures his Looney Tunes sensibilities in a nutshell.
Of course, Chan doesn’t do this entirely on his own and has future collaborator and martial arts super star in his own right, Yuen Biao (Project A, Wheels On Meals), is on hand for a blistering, bench assisted sparring session while Shih Kien (best known as the villainous, claw handed Han from Enter The Dragon) plays the long suffering police chief.
While you could maybe argue that Sammo Hung’s Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, released the same year, balanced the Kung Fu and cartoonish in a more nuanced way (both feature endless multiple, humourous misunderstandings with the law that slow down the central quest), that doesn’t take anything away from Chan’s accomplishment as he continued to be one of the leading lights on bringing the sensibilities of Hong Kong action cinema into the present day.
Bursting with the lightning-limbed innovation of its sinews stretching director/star, The Young Master stands confidently astride to old and the new with all the agility and dexterity you’d expect from a man who can make defending himself with an ornate smoking pipe look as easy as peeling an orange.
The Young Master may describe its main character, but it’s a fitting title for its creator too.