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“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” recently made its Stateside debut at Fantastic Fest last month, with Variance and Well Go USA scheduled to debut the film in limited theatrical release in the States and Canada on April 15, 2011. “Return” is a direct sequel to Bruce Lee’s 1972 movie “Fist of Fury” (aka “The Chinese Connection”), a film that Jet Li remade as “Legend of the Fist” in 1994, and Yen himself played on TV in a 1995 TV series. Yen returns as Chen Zhen, a Chinese martial arts badass during 1920s China, whose defiance of the Japanese made him a folk hero to the masses.
When “Legend of the Fist” opens, Chen Zhen is on the battlefields of World War I helping the French fight the Germans. As you might expect, that’s not exactly a recipe for success. After almost single-handedly defeating the German Army with nothing but a couple of knives and his ridiculously furious fists of fury, Chen heads back home to Shanghai, where he discovers that the city is being squeezed by the encroaching Japanese Army. Armed with his pencil mustache, an underground resistance force consisting of his fellow World War I buddies and the delightful nightclub singer Kiki (Qi Shu) at his side, Chen infiltrates the Casablanca nightclub, own by Anthony Wong, a big shot war profiteer. Chen’s mission: stop the Japanese at all costs, even if that means he has to dress up like Kato from “The Green Hornet” and whup enough ass to start his own ass whuppin’ factory.
“Return” is directed by Andrew Lau, most famous to Western audiences as the man behind the “Infernal Affairs” films (which was remade into “The Departed” by Martin Scorsese). Lau brings plenty of flair to the screen as director, but for those expecting a film more in line with Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend” or the Bruce Lee original, they will be disappointed. “Return” is not a grounded, gritty martial arts movie, with Chen showing off near superhuman abilities when he slips on the mask. Although the film does forego much of the wire-fu and over-the-top parkour stunts for the dojo finale, where Chen also busts out the nunchucks and Bruce Lee trademark yelps. Donnie Yen does double duty as star and action director, and the movie buzzes with electricity everytime Chen literally leaps into action. What can I say? The man knows how to put together an asskicking action scene.
The rest of “Return” is a screenwriter’s nightmare, with major leaps in logic and the type of nonsensical plotting that will leave many scratching their heads. If you’re one of those people who demand logical plot progression in your movies, you will have plenty to complain about here. Fortunately, I’ve never developed any such silly needs when it comes to Donnie Yen’s movies, so I wasn’t too bothered with the series of half-baked set-ups in the movie’s second half. On the positive side, I was surprised by the well-rounded relationship between Chen and Kiki, which really offered up the film’s best character moments by far, thanks to chemistry between the two leads. Qi Shu in particular is fantastic as the nightclub singer, a tortured soul who is never really as happy as she seems, and for good reason as it turns out. Shawn Yue has a curious, albeit tiny role as a pivotal Chinese General, while Kohata Ryuichi leads the Japanese contingent as a fearsome General fated to do battle with Zhen. The always excellent Anthony Wong is his usual excellent self, even though his character doesn’t really do much.
The action is, of course, the main reason to see “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen”. Unless you’re just really gung ho about Chinese nationalism, you’ll simply do what I did and pay just enough attention to much of the film’s anti-Japanese plot to understand what’s happening, while waiting patiently as Chen schmooze, the Japanese plots, and Kiki Jazz hands her way through the film’s filler material. Although there is a pretty nifty sequence about halfway through the film when the Japanese decides to target a series of Chinese patriots, with Chen suiting up to stop them. It becomes a race of how many Chen can save before the Japanese gets to them. All the while, Chen is being hunted by spies in the Casablanca nightclub. Can our hero save the day while at the same time preserve his secret identity? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Part superhero movie and part flag-waving war film, “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” marks another successful outing for Donnie Yen as an International action star. To be sure, the film is probably a tad too similar to his previous two efforts, in particular the two “Ip Man” films, and I would really like to see Yen expose his fists of fury to more disparate subject matters in the future. Until then, though, “Return” is a fine addition to his growing catalog, and fans of martial arts and asskicking filmmaking would be wise to pick it up. And hey, if nothing else, it makes you wish Yen had gotten the role of Kato in “The Green Hornet” movie. That is, if he had been interested in landing the gig. At this point in his career, Donnie Yen could probably do much better than playing second fiddle to Seth Friggin Rogen.
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 …