Dragon (Jackie Chan) is a young student at a martial arts school who has grown up there as an orphan, as has his brother Tiger (Wei Pai), who is older and who he looks up to. However, one day as the major, celebratory lion dance is being prepared, Tiger falls and injures his leg, meaning he cannot lead the school’s proud tradition of trouncing the competition every time the dance is staged, and it was he who their fortunes rested on. Nevertheless, the contest goes on and the bets are placed, with Dragon the man who takes the lead; he is almost as skilled as his brother, yet the rival school's representative appears to be far more adept than expected: what could the reason for that be?
A bit of subterfuge, that's what, in Jackie Chan's first real mega-blockbuster across the Asia of the eighties, The Young Master. He had already been making a name for himself in his previous hits which helped to establish him, but he really became a household name with this, earning himself a place at the top of the tree when it came to the most successful Hong Kong films at the box office of all time. It was his canny understanding of what audiences of the nineteen-eighties really wanted from their action movies here that paved the way for even more impressive efforts as the decade progressed and Chan became probably the most famous movie star in the world. If the antics in this owed more to what he had been in before, they made it apparent he was not going to rest on his laurels.
So there were not so many of the death-defying stunts in The Young Master as the emphasis was on the combat, of which there was so much that it came across as if ninety percent of the plot involved people trying to beat up Chan's character, and him retaliating in kind. After a spot of lion dancing that was not merely decorative but had a narrative point, there was some establishing to get through as Dragon loses for his school, but discovers he was bested by Tiger who set up the entire scheme so as to join the rival school by getting himself in their good books. Quite why he thought it was a great idea to sabotage and reject the school that brought him up is odd, though the bad attitude of his teacher is presumably something to do with it.
Anyway, Tiger leaves and Dragon, whose faith in his brother remains unwavering, goes after him to bring him back it he can be forgiven, the whole making the Prodigal Son see the error of his ways, or a variation on that theme at least. This was where the action truly began, as everyone Dragon met was an antagonist, or so it seemed, leaving Chan open to staging the most powerful martial arts sequences that he could, yet mixing them with his now trademark comedy, something that set him apart from the more serious-minded Bruce Lee, whose mantle as best ever he looked set on adopting for himself. That’s an argument that will likely never be resolved, everyone has their favourite, but seeing Chan work with various props to enhance his masterful stylings proved he was the more innovative performer.
That was more or less down to his sense of humour, and comedy became a large aspect of his work; there were some very decent laughs in The Young Master, and though they were fairly broad, that's what went over well with his target audience of... well, everyone in Hong Kong and its surrounding territories. With setpieces thrown up every ten minutes, there was no chance of this flagging in its energy, even if Chan was exhausting to watch as he chucked everything but the kitchen sink in there as far as his fighting went, from a fan battle to an intricate attack and defence dance with his old pal Yuen Biao and a footstool, plus a touch of the feminine as he adopted Lily Li's long skirt style for his own ends. But it was the epic finale battle that proved Chan didn't know when to quit, as he takes on the big baddie Tien Feng for a punishing confrontation that must rank as the finest example of the underdog getting his ass handed to him then turning it all around in martial arts movie history - it wasn't an original twist by any means, but the sheer physical aggression of the scene was something to behold. Chan never looked back.