- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Variance Films
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f Donnie Yen wasn’t already on his way to becoming the next great martial arts star following the success of “Ip Man,” then he’s surely made a compelling argument for it with “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen,” a film that sees him in a role made famous by two other Chinese action stars: Bruce Lee and Jet Li. It certainly seems fitting that Yen would get his chance to play the cultural hero just as his star is on the rise (even if he already did in a 1995 TV series), but while Yen’s involvement makes “Legend of the Fist” much better than it deserves to be, there’s only so much that his magical hands and feet can do before the film begins to crumble under the inept direction of Andrew Lau.
The story takes place in post-WWI Shanghai (specifically 1925), where the heroics of Chinese ammunition runners have already been forgotten by the Allied nations, allowing for Japan to wrestle control of the nation away from its people. With the city torn in half by internal conflict, former solider Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) returns from Europe under the identity of a fallen comrade to spearhead the Chinese resistance. After befriending the owner (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) of a popular nightclub frequented by Japanese military officials, Chen accepts the job as its new manager, providing him with the ideal cover to continue moonlighting as a rebel without suspicion. But when a death list of all the Chinese sympathizers the Japanese military has sanctioned for assassination is leaked to the public, Chen assumes the role of a masked vigilante to subvert Japan’s plans, inadvertently getting romantically involved with a sultry lounge singer (Shu Qi) who has a dangerous secret of her own.
Though the fictional tale of Chen Zhen has been told several times before on both the big screen and TV (perhaps most famously in Bruce Lee's “Fist of Fury”), "Legend of the Fist" is more of an unofficial sequel to those incarnations. Unfortunately, it's handled pretty sloppily, due in part to Lau's decision to fashion the film into more of a political thriller than a straight-up action movie, wasting time on disjointed subplots about feuding generals and clumsy cops instead of developing the main characters. Chen Zhen doesn't even have an arc so much as a static state of being, while Shu Qi’s double agent is never given any real motivation for her actions. As a result, the pair’s onscreen relationship suffers, causing the big emotional moment at the end of the film to fall flat, much like the aggressive Chinese nationalism that flows through the movie.
It’s hard to believe this was made by the same guy responsible for “Infernal Affairs” (the crime thriller that inspired Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”), because Lau seems completely out of his element here. Even more upsetting is the lack of action, which may come as a bit of a surprise to fans of Donnie Yen. There's only a handful of fight sequences spread across the sluggish 105-minute runtime, and with the exception of a killer opening that highlights Yen's talents as a martial artist and showman, the rest of the action (especially the finale, which is practically lifted straight from “Ip Man”) fails to impress. Granted, sacrificing action for story usually isn't such a bad thing, but in the case of "Legend of the Fist," it's the difference between a mediocre film and a great one.
Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review:
The two-disc Blu-ray release of “Legend of the Fist” doesn’t have much in the special features department, but credit to Well Go USA for at least including the behind-the-scenes featurettes and cast and crew interviews that appeared on the Hong Kong version. They may be subtitled, but Asian cinema fans will enjoy them nonetheless.