Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

You know Chen Zhen, right? Back in 1972 Chen Zhen looked like Bruce Lee and we saw him beat up that sign that said ‘No Chinese or dogs allowed’ in that movie ‘Fist of Fury’. Thirty years later Chen Zhen has returned and now he looks like Donnie Yen. The year is 1925 and Japan has began its invasion of China and history will let us know that they are going to be there for a while and if there was ever a bad time to be Chinese in China, this was it. Nonetheless, these Japanese invaders will find a constant thorn in their side because Chen Zhen is hanging around causing a ruckus in director Andrew Lau’s extremely erratic action / drama / super hero / mythical biopic ‘Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen’.

Our film starts in 1917 near the end of the First World War where we get a taste of the awesomeness of Chen Zhen as he almost single handedly takes out the entire German army in probably the movies best scene. Over the top to the tenth degree perhaps, but watching Donnie Yen mix Parkour, martial arts, knife wrangling and vine swinging behind a myriad of explosions and gunfire was certainly something to see.

Fast forward to the movies present time where Chen Zhen is now a piano playing maestro at the night club run by Mr. Liu (Anthony Wong). The city is Shanghai and the Japanese are making their presence felt, Liu and his colleagues recognize that China is in deep trouble considering how fractured their country is at this time which will make it much easier for the Japanese to stroll in and take over… but all of this strife is good for business. I’m waiting for the guy on the poster wearing the black mask to show up. Not yet.

Also at the club is Kiki (Shu Qi), the sultry songstress who has caught Chen’s eye and who carries a snub nosed revolver in her little purse, because you never know in Shanghai. Still no guy with the black mask. But we do have a villain in the coldly evil Kung Fu Master Colonel Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata). True enough he’s not too terribly fond of the Chinese, but he hates incompetence almost as much. Just ask those three dead officers lying on the floor of his dojo over there. Still no guy in the black mask.

Finally the guy in the black mask shows up. It’s mighty complicated but it has something to do with two generals, an assassination attempt and a movie prop. Regardless, the guy in the mask does some amazing stuff, kicks a lot of ass, and causes the Colonel some concern. Note the General’s brother had to apologize to his older brother for screwing up the mission, because you never know when big bro might karate chop you to the throat and kill you, but as he said ‘who knew a superhero would show up and mess up the mission?’ I mean that's a variable you really can't plan for.

There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on right about now such as Japanese spies, a resistance movement, a Japanese death list, all kinds of betrayals, all kinds of sleight of hand, a little torture and more… but we all know that it has to come down to one righteous Chinese freedom fighter with mad skills vs. one evil Japanese Colonel with mad skills… and I’m not going to spoil it for you who wins this fight. Let it be a surprise.

Lau’s ‘The Legend of the Fist’ is, in a word, a mess. It’s beautiful mess, mind you, but it is an unwieldy, messy mix of all kinds of genres. One of the problems that I had with this movie, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, is that I had to keep reminding myself that this is truly a sequel to ‘Fist of Fury’. For instance Chen Zhen has a secret identity and they don’t really get into it all that much as to why he is pretending to be somebody else but then you have to remember that in ‘Fist of Fury’ Chen Zhen’ is a wanted criminal by the Japanese so he has to be disguise himself. By pasting on a pencil thin moustache. I think he also got shot to death at the end of ‘Fist of Fury’ but we will casually ignore that.

Another issue is that the number of plot elements that populate this movie is dizzying to keep track of, with almost none of these plot elements suitably explored to any satisfaction. Even Yen in the Kato getup wasn’t something that was the main focus of the film. In fact the film had no true central theme. The relationship between Chen and Kiki was very interesting and Yen and Shu Qi were very good together, but except for a few emotional touches here and there it was glossed over. This was the same with Kiki and one of her friends at the club, a relationship that was inserted to impact us on Kiki’s torn loyalties, but not nearly enough time was spent to give the scene the impact it needed. Shu Qi’s sad eyes and trembling lips can only carry us so far. Anthony Wong was great as per usual, but even his club owner / mobster / freedom fighter was poorly developed to the point I still don’t understand his character.

Okay, stuffy critics hat off. Are Donnie Yen’s choreographed fight scenes any good? Of course they are… he’s Donnie Freaking Yen. As mentioned earlier the opening sequence was spectacular, the black mask coming out party was thrilling and the final fight against roughly 8000 Japanese kung fu trainees before they had to give way to the Evil Colonel was also very good. Anti-climactic perhaps, especially considering the best sequence was the first sequence when it should be reversed, but you know that there are not a lot of things, cinematically speaking, that we would bypass watching a Donnie Yen fight sequence for.

Despite its issues, which includes a lack of focus and a missing central theme, ‘Legend of the Fist’ is still worth seeing because the production is beautiful to look at, Shu Qi is still beautiful to look at, Anthony Wong is still an artist we love to watch work and Donnie Yen is almost fifty and is still probably the best action star on the planet earth. We would’ve liked more, but that is enough.

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