Criterion Chan: THE YOUNG MASTER

It turns out the key to unstoppable kung fu is opium.

Criterion just put eight Jackie Chan films on the Criterion Channel (possibly the best looking of all the streaming channels out there). With the world being horrible, I thought a look at one of action cinema’s sweeter onscreen personas had a pleasing ring to it. I wish I could include all eight films, but there are only five days of the week. Right now, anyway.



THE YOUNG MASTER has a plot that is both super complicated and tertiary. Chan plays Dragon, an orphan at a kung fu school with his bad brother, Tiger. For shenanigans that include competing against his own school at a dragon dance-off as well as fornication, Tiger is expelled and Dragon must do what he can to bring him back.

Pretty simple so far. But then things get unwieldy. Tiger starts working for a rival school and they free the film’s main villain Kim. Except Kim isn’t really much of a villain. We don’t see much of him until it’s time for him to fight Chan.

Meanwhile, Chan gets mistaken for a criminal and runs afoul of a police officer. This side quest takes up a significant amount of running time but really doesn’t add up to much, though we do get to see Chan naked.

To be honest, none of it really adds up to much. The good news is it doesn’t matter. Everything is a setup for various fights. THE YOUNG MASTER is essentially wall-to-wall martial arts, with some shenanigans thrown in to keep the tone light (hello quicksand, my old friend).

The film concludes with a twenty-minute long duel between Dragon and Kim. Again, we don’t know Kim very well, which hurts the epic status of this match. Nevertheless, it’s still amazing. Chan spends most of it getting his ass kicked, to the extent that it becomes punishing to watch after a while. The tide turns, however, when he is fed water from an opium pipe, which grants him lunacy and invulnerability. Just like in real life.

Chan’s Mental Age:

About 20. Dragon is sweet and innocent, but he’s not a dummy. He enters the film with all the kung fu mastery he needs to keep kicking ass from beginning to end. A lot of people fuck with him and most end up regretting it.

Best Fight:

If a film ends with a twenty-minute long brawl, that’s going to be your best fight. And while it lacks the wit and creativity Chan’s known for, its audacious length and narrative within more than make up for it. If only Kim were a better character. He feels like an arbitrary villain, which holds back the fight’s legendary status.

Still, the fight remains pretty cool. It works in rounds marked by water breaks; in each one Chan goes after a different weak point and gets his ass handed to him despite making bits of progress here and there. I would have liked to see him victorious via strategy like this, but I’m also not going to complain about a victory via opium that turns Chan into Harpo Marx. That shit is funny.

Unlikeliest Weapon:

Wooden benches get a remarkable amount of play here, showing up in several fights. We get wooden bench vs knapsack, wooden bench vs fan, and even wooden bench vs wooden bench. If you’ve seen a Jackie Chan movie, you can probably imagine all the creativity he puts into fighting with a wooden bench.

I’m also very fond of a bit where Chan’s opponent wields a sword so Chan fights back with the guy’s beloved pipe. So it’s like a sword fight where every swing ends early to not destroy a prized possession.

But the best unlikely weapon goes to a skirt Chan puts on during a fight with two enemies. It’s exactly the kind of funny/improvised/creative weapon Chan is known for. And it is a very pretty skirt!

Second Biggest Badass:

There is a mohawk guy who fights with a rope, looped on both ends. He doesn’t do much and gets taken out early, but he’s my favorite. The power of good hair.

Craziest Stunt:

There aren’t a lot of big stunts, but Chan really brings it here as a director. There are so many goddamn fights in this one, and Chan makes sure we see them all in their creative glory. Even in the talking scenes, he's doing a zoom in and out of faces for every line. It feels generous almost to the point of being too much. Supposedly, he initially turned in a three-hour cut of this film. I can’t even imagine that.

I would also like to note the film’s superlative dummy work. Kim frequently kicks people so hard they gain air and fly across the frame. There are no cuts and it does not look like wire work. In the more subtle instances, I’m sure it’s just remarkable, athletic body control, but in some it has to be a dummy, and it looks great. On the other hand, there is some bad dummy work at the end that is great in an entirely different way. I am thankful for both. Just give me all the dummies.