December 02nd 2010

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Director: Wai-keung Lau | Run time: 105 min

Film review by Shane Lightowler

The ever-charismatic Donnie Yen is going through something of a career renaissance at the moment. Yen has threatened several times to break out into superstardom – first in the early 90s through strong starring roles in martial arts flicks Once Upon a China Part 2, Iron Monkey, and Wing Chun, and then again in Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2002.

It took a while, but Yen has finally come into his own, flourishing in a solid string of recent hits including The Twins Effect, The Painted Skin, SPL, Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point, Ip Man, and 14 Blades. With Jet Li and Jackie Chan both winding down their own careers, Yen’s time to shine as Hong Kong’s biggest action star has arrived, having been one of its busiest and most consistent workers for the past two decades.

Yen’s latest, Legend of the Fist is an ambitious movie, but probably isn’t up there with his best work. Part historical epic, part martial arts film, Legend of the Fist is set in 1920s Shanghai during Japanese occupation. Yen plays Chen Zhen – a nationalist rebel caught up in an elaborate plot to undermine Japanese authority.

As the title alludes, Legend of the Fist is a continuation/remake of an earlier TV series (also starring Donnie Yen), which itself was a remake of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury (poorly sequelised without Lee’s involvement in Jackie Chan’s New Fist of Fury), which was later remade, featuring Jet Li at his very best, as Fist of Legend. Got that?

Regardless, the script is typically convoluted, containing a mish-mash of disparate elements - elaborately staged war scenes, revenge, jazz numbers, Chinese gangsters, Japanese karate exponents, double agents, doomed romance, heroic sacrifice and Donnie Yen doing his best Batman impersonation (Jet Li’s Black Mask says hi…). All of this is good fun, and the 1920s sets are fantastic but there is one fatal flaw that brings the movie down… the action in Legend of the Fist is fairly weak.

Don’t get me wrong, there are numerous fight scenes in this movie. The standouts are an impressively-staged opening sequence where Donnie Yen takes on a squad of German machine gunners bare-handed, and the inevitable one-on-one fight at the film’s climax with Donnie Yen’s evil Japanese arch-nemesis. The problem is that the action, in the main, is brief and poorly staged. At one point Donnie Yen takes on a dojo-full of Japanese goons, but the scene has no impact since we can’t really see what’s going on.

Another quirk is the groan-inducing Chinese nationalism at play. Legend of the Fist goes out of its way to big-up the notion of a powerful, united China. All non-Chinese in this movie are stereotypes of the worst kind – blatantly evil, stupid, or both. I could forgive this if it didn’t constantly invoke minute-long diatribes on why the Chinese are definitively NOT the sick men of Asia, but since it doesn’t, I don’t. Once or twice is fine – I draw the line after half a dozen mentions however.

As a martial arts movie Legend of the Fist is passable. It’s beautiful to look at, and if you can get past the thin characters you’ll probably have a fun time. Donnie Yen puts in yet another solid performance and has a handful of solid action scenes, but check out the films listed above if you want to see something with a bit more grit to it.

Mild recommendation.

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