(Movie Review by Kevin Nickelson) Remember those days when you went through the junk in your attic and stumbled across a piece of treasure that you’d forgotten about. Maybe it was an embarrassing photo of a drunk family member at a party, or a sterling silver Buddha with the clock in the belly. The one you won at the last beer chug-a-lug contest you had in college. These are treasures to you, anyway. For me it was finding the wonderfully orchestrated 1966 martial arts thriller “Come Drink With Me” amidst a massive amount of wasted viewing time donated to mediocre and worse kung fu adventures.
Directed and written by King Hu, the man behind such classic fist-flying action films as “Dragon Inn” (1967) and “Touch of Zen” (1971), “Come Drink With Me” effortlessly combines stunning visuals, smart dialogue, poignant drama, and precision-choreographed action set-pieces to make high entertainment for fans. And Hu manages to do this without resorting to over-use of close-ups and zooms. That, in itself, is most refreshing.
The plot of “Come Drink With Me” is pretty simple. A group of bandits kidnaps a government leader in an attempt to force an exchange for one of their own, who’s being held by said government as a criminal. Along comes a special agent/avenging warrior lady named Golden Swallow (superbly played by Cheng Pei-Pei) to rescue the leader. It turns out that the kidnapped leader is her brother. Aiding her is Drunken Cat, a Drunken Master (the hilarious Yueh Hua). Drunken Cat is seeking out his estranged brother, one of the bandit leaders. What follows is a series of brutal, bloody encounters, dizzying wire work (a pre-cursor by nearly 40 years to movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and breathlessly paced fights.
Hu does a nice job of melding the action with moments of subtle drama. The heroes of his film are flawed and vulnerable, filled with self-doubt. Golden Swallow is unsure of her ability to defeat her enemies by herself in one sequence after she is felled by a poison dart and Drunken Cat struggles to confront his brother and deal with his own demons. Hu is aided by brilliant turns by Cheng Pei-Pei as Swallow and Yueh Hua as Cat. Both offer ballet-like physicality and subtle emotional resonance as the heroes. Both Pei-Pei and Hua show a surface of a feral beast with underpinnings of frailty. Hua also nicely handles the films few comic moments, interspersed throughout to leaven the action. He shows a bit of a rubber face reaction in some sequences, not unlike Jackie Chan’s own malleable face. Strong work is also provided by Hung Lieh Chen as Jade-Faced Tiger, the head of the bandit gang. Chen’s Tiger is equal parts lithe, graceful, cold, and calculating. Not your ordinary villain. And more than a match for our leads.
Visually, Hu utilizes the widescreen process expertly. Along with cinematographer Lan-Shan Ho, Hu stages his shots to purposely exploit the wide-angle lens used, avoiding intimate close-ups and obvious pan-outs as much as possible. This helps to provide a panorama that gives the film an epic feel. Both men make heavy use of exterior shooting to offer color and expand the story and draw the viewer in with a sense of awe. Ying-Chieh Han and Kin-Kwan Poon direct the action sequences with a methodical touch. The fighting is staged to show multiple stunts going on at the same time and in rapid-fire movement. This provides an exhilarating, “who’s fighting with whom” feel, that sends the viewer on an adrenalin-soaked rollercoaster ride.
The re-issued dvd, by Dragon Dynasty and Celestial Films, offers a huge plethora of extras. Audio commentary by Martial Arts film historian Bey Logan, a documentary by Tsui Hark on King Hu, and a fine interview with star Cheng Pei-Pei make for good entertainment on their own. Together with the pristine, re-mastered print of the film itself, the dvd is well worth the price.
So why not dust off the Buddha clock, put it back on your living room mantle, and pop “Come Drink With Me” in the dvd player. It’s a masterful piece of high-flying entertainment and a piece of cinema that deserves to be remembered as a classic, right there with gorilla hat stands and chug-a-lug awards.
King Hu (director) / King Hu, Yang Erh (screenplay)
CAST: Pei-pei Cheng … Golden Swallow
Hua Yueh … Drunken Cat
Hsi Chang … Innkeeper
Hung Lieh Chen … Jade Faced Tiger