"Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen," written by Gordon Chan, directed by Wai-keung Lau, 105 minutes, rated R.
By our guest blogger, Joel Crabtree
Chen Zhen is a Chinese legend comparable to Western heroes like Robin Hood or James Bond. Previously on screen, he has been portrayed by Bruce Lee and Jet Li, two of greatest martial arts stars of all time. In “Legend of the Fist,” Donnie Yen takes a crack at Chen Zhen, and although he's not as well-known in America as his predecessors, Yen is arguably the single greatest action star of his generation.
In “Legend of the Fist,” Yen portrays Chen Zhen in a new light, building him up beyond a mere martial arts hero and into something that borders on superhuman. We meet the unbeatable Chen Zhen quite literally flying through WWI combat zones in France, where he is both a laborer and soldier for the Allies.
When one of his comrades is killed in battle, Chen Zhen chooses to fake his death, killing off the legend he has created, and takes on the identity of the fallen soldier. Several years later, Chen Zhen finds himself as a key player in a resistance movement in Japan-occupied Shanghai.
It is there that Chen Zhen grabs the attention of a devoted Chinese club owner (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and a hostess (Qi Shu), and lands a job giving him access to Japanese, Chinese and European officials.
As tensions rise over Japan’s occupation, however, Chen Zhen adopts yet another identity, “The Masked Warrior,” to stand up for his countrymen and help rid China of the Japanese.
If it sounds like a blend of Chinese nationalism and comic books with some martial arts thrown in and a pinch of noir, that’s probably because it is. The combination, needless to say, is pretty irresistible.
Director Wai-keung Lau’s bustling post-WWI Shanghai backdrop is reminiscent of United States’ Jazz Age, leaning on early superheroes such as The Shadow and Batman for inspiration. It helps set the film apart from previous incarnations.
“Legend of the Fist” also finds its identity through extensive use of wire-work, giving Chen Zhen a larger-than-life appearance while sacrificing the gift of Donnie Yen’s martial arts in its purest form. When the wires finally do come off, however, there is a scene that is so visceral it will make you forget about the high-flying silliness. That’s the Donnie Yen I was waiting to see.