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One of the great things about being a Donnie Yen fan is the fact that he makes so many films, punching and kicking his way through several productions a year. “Legend of The Fist – The Return of Chen Zhen” is his latest, with him taking on the role of the Chinese folk hero, famously portrayed back in 1972 by Bruce Lee in “Fist of Fury”, and in 1994 by Jet li in Gordon Chan’s remake “Fist of Legend”. Having already starred in a TV version himself back in 1995, this time around Yen aims for something different, as he and writer producer Chan and director Andrew Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) take up Chen Zhen’s continuing story as a secret agent fighting the Japanese in the 1920s. The film is an all star blockbuster affair, with lavish production values and an impressive supporting cast headed by Shu Qi, Anthony Wong and Huang Bo.
Yen plays Chen Zhen, who after the events of the original films left China to fight on the European battlefields of the First World War. He returns to Shanghai in the 1920s, posing as a young businessman who soon ingratiates himself with Tycoon Liu (Anthony Wong), owner of the popular Casablanca club. At the same time he is a member of a group of secret patriots dedicated to preventing the Japanese from spreading their influence in China, taking to the streets at night in a mask to protect their targets from assassination. Complicating matters by falling for showgirl Kiki (Shu Qi), Chen Zhen faces a terrible challenge in the form of the Japanese general Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryu, recently in “City of Life and Death”), who arrives in the city hell-bent on conquest and crushing resistance.
Taking on the iconic role of Chen Zhen is very much a natural step for Donnie Yen as he continues to assert his position as one of the all time greats of martial arts cinema. Unsurprisingly, he is more than up to the task, bringing his own interpretation of the character and his own brand of righteous charisma and lightening fast moves. Although his performance is essentially very similar to that in the superb “Ip Man” films, he brings the right amount of vengeful anger and humanity to the role, helping to add enough emotional depth to lift the film from being a simple kung fu beat ‘em up. The premise of following Chen Zhen’s adventures as a secret agent type works surprisingly well, and though the film initially seems like it’s going to turn into yet another superhero origin yarn, there’s thankfully a lot more going on. Although the plot does play out as expected, writer Gordon Chan and director Andrew Lau manage to keep things interesting, combining martial arts, political intrigue and wartime espionage into a potent mix, with lots of deception and back stabbing along the way to the inevitable final showdown. It certainly helps that the film has a hard, ruthless edge, with numerous members of the high profile supporting cast biting the dust in the process.
In this regard, the film is more than just a Donnie yen vehicle, with some good work all round from the other stars. Shu Qi contributes an effective turn, raising her character above mere eye candy, and continues to prove that she has a far wider range than some of her early cutesy-ditsy work might have suggested. Anthony Wong is also on good form, and although he doesn’t really have a great deal to do, his older statesman type role occasionally lends the film a few touches of gravitas. Surprisingly though, its Huang Bo who impresses the most as a police officer charged with keeping the peace, balancing appeasing the Japanese with helping Chen Zhen on the sly. From providing some comic relief in the early stages, his character quickly develops into one of the film’s most interesting, and is very much its conscience, as well as the provider of most of its rousing nationalist moments.
Lau’s direction is as slick as ever, and the film is very much in the blockbuster mould, with lots of effort having been put into the sets and costumes. The period detail pays off in creating a convincingly exotic 1920s atmosphere, with lots of nightclub scenes and dance numbers. Although the film does suffer from some odd pacing at times and some choppy editing, including a very abrupt ending, when it takes off, it really flies. This is thanks mainly to Yen’s excellent and inventive action choreography, which includes some well designed and explosive set pieces. Things get pretty violent and bloody in places, and aside from a few instances of shoddy CGI work this furthers the film’s tough and gritty air, adding a welcome sense of visceral danger. There are a number of real stand out scenes that rank amongst the year’s best for the genre, with the final act containing some truly awesome sequences as Yen takes on a massive mob of Japanese thugs (apparently around 150) before facing down the evil Chikaraishi in a duel that is well worth the wait.
All of this combines to make “Legend of The Fist – The Return of Chen Zhen” not only a worthy follow up to the classic originals, but a fine piece of martial arts cinema in its own right. Donnie Yen continues to prove why he is still the top genre star of the new century, and the film is another thrilling notch on his ever expanding belt.
Andrew Lau (director) / Gordon Chan (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Chen Zhen
Qi Shu … Kiki
Yasuaki Kurata …
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … Liu
Shawn Yue …
Kohata Ryuichi …
Karl Dominik … Vincent
Bo Huang …