If Jerry Lewis and Ernest Hemingway got together and penned a kung-fu picture, it would be probably be a bit like 1978's Jackie Chan career-maker "Drunken Master," an absurdist, slapstick fight flick about fragile masculinity that is also, in its own weird way, a tribute to and rumination on drinking too much. Such dialogue as "All our brave drinkers shall never die" and "don't be fooled by a man staggering around" are paeans to being boozy, the type of half-hearted aphorism you might read carved into a piece of wood hanging above some sentimental drinker's bar. And then there is the alcohol-makes-you-stronger plot itself: Chan is Wong Fei-hung (or "Freddy," as subtitled and dubbed versions call him), an obnoxious young gun in need of direction who is, as a result of his troublemaking (including three acrobatic, stunt-filled fist fights in one day), sent by his father to Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien), a wine-guzzling kung-fu teacher whose style is derived from the about-to-fall-over stagger of drunks throughout history, specifically "the eight drunken immortals."
Consider this: Akira Toriyama's funny fighting manga/anime "Dragon Ball Z" owes a great deal to "Drunken Master"; it simply replaced its booze-equals-strength-and-insight conceit with magical realist power from outer space. There are other charming comic-book flourishes too: When a baddie who uses his forehead as a weapon gets hit with a hammer by Wong, surreal carbuncles bubble up all over his head but he is otherwise feeling just fine; Wong gets the upper hand in a fight by farting in the face of an opponent and then shoving his face in a pile of cow turds. It's funny in a way that movies just aren't funny anymore, which is to say it's aggressively, gleefully unsophisticated. Plus, Chan is usually the butt of jokes here, a counter to the alpha-male nonsense flexing all around him. It is all rather Rabelaisian, really. Even its juvenile sense of justice is refreshing: In one scene, Wong beats the hell out of a rich prick best described as "Bieber-esque" who harasses poor villagers and gives the guy's money to a shop owner. Like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, and Jacques Tati, Chan explores the comedy of awkwardness and embarrassment, those moments when you're dealing with some screw-up or sheepishly shrugging it off (it also seems as though Larry David internalized Chan's charming shamelessness). In one hilarious scene, Wong pretends he has hurt his neck to avoid showing his face to his father's guest—who, it turns out, is his aunt and a woman who kicked his ass a few scenes before because he was trying to steal a kiss from (or OK, sexually harass) the woman's daughter, who it turns out is Wong's cousin.
Got all that? It doesn't matter. What matters here is how we get from one fight to another, so approach "Drunken Master" like you would a musical because it's a movie fueled by physicality. Still, at some point in its nearly two-hour running length, all the fighting—with fists, with jugs of wine, with benches, you name it and Jackie Chan uses it as a weapon or a shield—and bug-eyed comedy start to feel ambient because they never let up, and you realize that what's left lurking underneath this cray-cray kung-fu classic, beyond some great gags, is something resembling an exploration of alcoholism.
For the most part, "Drunken Master" takes a childlike perspective on being drunk (drunks are funny, liquor is cool, the end) but through Beggar So, who at different points even goes through withdrawals, his hands shaking from lack of liquor, it sincerely considers alcoholism. Beggar So's addiction gives him purpose and totally isolates him from society. He is a brilliant, eccentric kung-fu master who, at one point, picks Wong up by his nose and throws him to the ground, but his ability to do that well hinges on drink, a balance of not being too blotto but consistently sated. Like the punch-drunk movie itself, Beggar So is disciplined in this specific way and this way only, and otherwise totally out of control.
"Drunken Master," directed by Woo-Ping Yuen, plays at the Charles Theater on Oct. 8.