Today on Fight Nerd Cinema, we continue down the path of Donnie Yen’s most recent notable body of work, and review one of his latest movies. Hot on the heels of his success with “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2”, Yen took on another historic role in “Legend of The Fist: Return of Chen Zhen”. Released in 2010, the film is a period piece that takes inspiration from some classic source material that is re-imagined for modern times. Let’s take a closer look at this flick and see if its worth watching!
Our film starts in France, 1917, during the first World War. Chinese soldiers are used on the front line of battle as workers, which is where we first meet Chen Zhen, played by Donnie Yen, leading his pack of unarmed countrymen to deliver ammo in the middle of a battlefield to French soldiers. During a skirmish, the French soldiers are shot dead by Germans leading to Chen and his men being fired upon. Chen literally leaps into action and, using only a bayonet removed from a rifle and his body, takes out an entire German platoon.
Fast forward to 1925, with Japan preparing to invade China and take it under their control with Colonel Chikaraishi (played by Kohata Ryu) at the forefront of the struggle. Chen has resurfaced with a new name, Qi Tianyuan (the name of a soldier who died during the war with him), while masquerading as a pianist in the “Casablanca” nightclub filled with foreign dignitaries from across the future Axis and Allied Forces. There he meets Kiki (played by Shu Qi), the films love interest, who is a singer in the bar with secrets of her own. Behind his new mustache is a key member of an underground resistance force to push back the Japanese invading forces.
One night in the club, Chen’s resistance learns of an assassination attempt on General Zeng or the Northeast National Army, which would cause massive political turbulence and interfere with the unification of China. While scoping out the enemies numbers, Chen notices a costume of “The Masked Warrior” dressed on a mannequin (which is the outfit Kato wore in “The Green Hornet”). A shootout ensues with the warring factions as the Japanese have the advantage, when suddenly Chen runs in wearing his new costume and takes out the opposing forces. “I think a superhero just blew our operation,” mutters one of the Japanese military officials, and thus begins our tale of Chen Zhen kicking butt and taking names.
So now you know what the story is, let’s get down to the nitty gritty!
The Inside Scoop:
“Legend of The Fist” was meant to be a continuation of the popular 1995 Chinese TV mini-series, “Fist of Fury”, which was based on Bruce Lee’s film by the same name of 1972. Yen played Chen Zhen in that series as well, and reprised the role of Chen Zhen for this film. Notice the word “continuation” and not “sequel” since the movie is more of a re-telling with new elements, an adaptation rather than the next chapter.
Writer and Producer of the film, Gordon Chan, made it known that he had plans to remake “Fist of Fury”, but wanted to alter the source material since Bruce Lee’s version put too much weight on revenge. Chan was also the man responsible for Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend” from 1994, which is a remake of “Fist of Fury” to begin with, but Chan wanted to make something more epic, and his vision was “Legend of The Fist”.
Yen was initially reluctant to play Chen Zhen, a character he had not portrayed in over a decade, but it offered him a chance to break away from typecasting. “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen presented me with two major challenges,” Yen said in an interview, “How to break away from Ip Man’s image. Initially, I didn’t want to take on this role, given that I’d already done it over a decade ago, it was after much negotiations and debates before I finally relented.”
Taking on double duty with this film, Yen also choreographed the fight scenes. With the history of this franchise, Yen was challenged to find a way to reinvigorate the fighting sequences, and did so by modernizing them with elements of MMA, which Yen likened to the principles of Jeet Kune Do.
Donnie Yen owns the camera in this one, and reminds me of a Bruce Wayne character rather than the Chen Zhen we have seen in the past. He is a man with multiple identities that he must constantly keep in check, and he is not alone in this game of deception. His character is not driven purely by revenge; there is a sadness to the character and a sense of national pride that is more important than his own motives.
Kohata Ryu is devilish as Chikaraishi, especially with what he forces Kiki to do with General Zhou’s girlfriend. Not merely evil for evil’s sake, he is devoted to Japan and driven by revenge. Combined, this makes for a cold and calculated rival to Zhen’s righteous nature. Complicating things is the stunning Shu Qi as Kiki, who is much like Chen with her different faces. Torn and wanting to do the right thing, she too is motivated by blind nationalism but wishes she could open her eyes. The supporting cast adds layers of depth of the film, and unlike “Ip Man 2” where the producers seemed to forget what year the movie took place in, the sets and clothes are all spot-on to help you get lost in this world.
The camerawork is stylish and contemporary, combined with great editing and music to add to the drama of scenes. This is Donnie Yen at his best, not just in terms of action but his acting as well. Bolstered by an excellent supporting cast, I found this a far more enjoyable movie than his last starring role in “Ip Man 2”. Subtle undertones of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” shine through in a very positive way, right down to the orchestral score. This feels like a Chinese superhero movie set in the same reality as Batman, Iron Man or any other good Marvel or DC comics movie. Even the pacing seems pulled from “Batman Begins”, only sped up a bit for overseas audiences, which is for the best. The plot is very self-contained, so you do not need to know about “Fist of Fury” to follow the film, but knowing about it adds to the experience.
“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” – the action scenes:
There are not a ton of fight scenes in this, but the ones that are here are great. We have the opening fight in WW1, the assassination attempt, the attack on the newspaper company, and the climatic final battle leading into “The Masked Warrior” and Chikaraishi battling to the finish.
The opening fight had me hooked on this superhuman character played by Yen, but we are quickly brought back to reality when his fight is over as we see him and his Chinese cohorts retreating from the battle scene, carrying their wounded while still being shot at. Not much later into the film, the assassination attempt happens that leads to the origin of “The Masked Warrior” and is another fast-paced action scene. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a wait until the next fight and even more so after. The deep storyline will keep you enthralled enough to not notice the timelapse between fights, and the payoff is well worth your patience.
Donnie Yen only used weapons in the opening fight and the last fight, a bayonet in the beginning and nunchuks in the end, and only for a limited time with each. There were also a few shoot out scenes and gang beatings, along with plenty of violent deaths as the story progressed. The action scenes are short and sweet, but leave you longing for more.
The difficulty of doing a fight scene with the character of Chen Zhen is not portraying him like Bruce Lee, but translating the combative attributes of Lee into the character of Chen Zhen. The character of Chen Zhen has such a rich history already, it’s hard to not get caught up in a potential stereotype in terms of action sequences. With Gung Fu as a base, Yen had to pull elements from traditional martial arts as well as modern Jeet Kune Do to make for exciting fight scenes. Yen modifies the classic Bruce Lee stance and successfully transforms it into Chen “The Masked Warrior”. Using elements of MMA such as ground & pound and some transitional ground work, Yen gave us the next evolution of JKD, which perfectly fit into the style of fight this movie portrayed.
If I wanted to nitpick, and I always do, the final fight scene goes a bit overboard with Yen’s Bruce Lee impersonation. While the scene is still exciting, well-shot and expertly choreographed, the question that popped into my head was how did Chen Zhen suddenly learn to fight in an entirely new style that we have not seen him use at all during the rest of the film? The character is literally beat out of maintaining that style early in the fight, but for that brief it seems too obvious and undermine’s Yen’s own prowess in the martial arts. Nonetheless, I found this sequence and the opening action sequence to be the two best in the entire film, and while the others were good, they were not nearly as strong as these two.
Using the Nolan formula makes for a believable superhero movie and also makes this very accessible for Western audiences. One of the problems I had with “Ip Man 2” was how certain bits of dialogue were just lost in translation. There are no problems like that here, although we do get a few goofy scenes with some bumbling cops led by Huang Bo to lighten the mood but their scenes are sparse and quick. Everything in “Legend of The Fist” builds up the character of Chen Zhen and the “The Masked Warrior” as alternate identities, with Chikaraishi playing the cunning villain every step of the way.
The film is also an homage to Bruce Lee, most notably in the fighting. Shots mirror vintage Lee scenes, especially in the final fight scene that harkens back to the original “Fist of Fury”. In an interview promoting the film, Yen stated that the film was dedicated to the memory of Lee and his character was as an enhanced version of Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen, “The Chen Zhen that I’m portraying will carry traces of Bruce Lee’s shadows, his sentiments, his deportment. I hope to pay tribute to him. At the same time, I’d also incorporate my own ideals, and fighting styles. You can say that this is Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen completely re-imagined, and elevated.” Yen accomplished this and made an exciting movie that leaves room for a sequel as well, one I would much rather see again over “Ip Man 2”.
I give “Legend of The Fist” three out of five stars. This is a martial arts movie that bridges Western and Eastern audiences masterfully with its complex characters, slick combat, and deep plot. This is not “Fist of Fury” retold, but uniquely reinvented in a way that you would not expect. You can order “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” from Amazon.com for around $12-15 and I absolutely recommend you do. Give it a watch and let me know what you thought of the movie in the comments!
Okay, after three straight weeks of Donnie Yen I think it’s time we shift away from the Chinese scene and head over to another part of Asia. Next week, we take a look at a huge-hit from 2002 based on a true story. So stay tuned next week as The Fight Nerd reviews what many call the Korean “Rocky” film, “Champion”!