REVIEW - LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN
This is has been a good year for Donnie Yen. With IP MAN 2 establishing Donnie as the heir apparent to an absent Jet Li and a broken down, family movie making, Jackie Chan there is a sense of wonder at a man who can flow through a fight with grace and fury but who has not set his sights on a wider market. Be it an indifference to the wants and needs of a global film treasure trove that could await him should he just get his foot in the door stateside or just plain satisfaction in doing the kinds of films he’s happy enough doing overseas, the man is electrifying in this role.
Set in Shanghai around the end of World War I, Donnie plays Chen Zhen, a club owner in just the kind of place that Spielberg envisioned as a swanky Asian nightclub in TEMPLE OF DOOM. The story revolves around Japan’s encroachment into China and thus we have our tension. Throw in a Japanese spy who Yen falls for and we have ourselves a film. And it’s a film that caters to almost every fan of martial arts. The opening sequence alone is enough to make you wonder at the ways that choreographers continue to find nuances in making you believe there is still some originality to be found in this genre. With only his wits and fists, Yen explodes with this ability to be nimble and entirely compelling. The only issue, though, is that it’s like the opening sequence to a great comic book. You get sucked in by the cover only to wait 14 pages to get to the core of what you thought you were getting.
Not that what you get is tiresome by any means. The story set in Shanghai is filled with narrative and endless conversations, to say nothing of the occasional foot to someone’s face. There is a lot of exploring going on as it relates to character and while I didn’t mind as a viewer I could understandably see that what’s being marketed is an action movie of slick proportions. What’s served, however, is a little less Michael Bay and a little more introspection. People are talking a lot and, as a costumed superhero of sorts, Yen acquits himself quite well as he vacillates between hardcore street fighter and suave, debonair smooth talker.
Directed by Wai-keung Lau, the man who brought the world INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the film is relentless when it has to be and that’s what saves this from being a disappointing, confusing hodgepodge of tone and theme. Lau stitches the needs of the story with the mindless violence that most of us are here for in a way that is just as seamless as Yen’s fighting. As well, buttressed by a wicked opening sequence and a finale that finally feels like someone thought of something truly brilliant instead of something that’s just flashy, the movie keeps itself afloat by being engaging at all the right times.
What separates this film from so many others in past years is that this movie feels like it wasn’t just saddled with a few kung-fu set pieces and sent on its way. It’s a movie that wants to try and be light and breezy like an action movie with just a little narrative in there for good measure. These characters are legendary in the genre and both Yen and Lau do them a great service by being faithful to the spirit of the story and for making a movie that is more than worth your time to check out. It’s certainly a movie worthy enough to be considered one of Yen’s best films in the last five years and there is no substitution for the joy you get at the opening and closing sequences. Highly recommended.
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