Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)
Director: Lau Wai-keung
Writers: Gordon Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi and Anthony Wong

The Plot: Our film opens with Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) battle against the Japanese in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War. While on the battle field, he watches as one of his friends from the resistance Qi Tianyuan is killed. After this, Chen Zhen decides to take the identity of his fallen comrade and wanders back into Shanghai and takes refuge with the local resistance against the Japanese. He makes friends with Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong) who gives him a job in his club, where he can keep an eye on the local Japanese who come through. As the Japanese plan to instigate a civil war between the local warlord’s, Chen Zhen takes on the role of a superhero and begins to fight against the invading country using darkness to conceal his identity. Now Chen Zhen has to fight the oncoming Japanese assault and hide himself from the locals at Lie Yutian, including Kiki (Shu Qi) his potential love interest who also happens to be a Japanese double agent.

The Review
I don’t know if I’ve made the point many times before, but I am a huge fan of Jet Li’s immortal classic Fist of Legend. Easily that was the film that would prove to be Jet Li’s finest hour and showcase his ability to carry a martial arts film. It is a movie that still tops the list of “great martial arts movies” amongst even the most hardcore of Kung Fu film aficionados. The action choreography was on a level that few films could compete with and it has an endearing legacy with martial arts film fans the world over. The movie centered around Chen Zhen, a fictional martial artist who was trained by real life Huo Yuanjia (who was represented in the film Fearless by Jet Li) and focused on his search for revenge in response to his master being poisoned. A true event that would be revenged in an act of cultural wish-fulfillment. Jet Li’s film wasn’t the first incarnation of lead character Chen Zhen however, as it was a remake of Bruce Lee’s equally revered The Chinese Connection (aka: Fist of Fury). The character went through another transformation and was reborn during the late nineties with Donnie Yen taking up the role of Chen Zhen on the Fist of Fury TV show. The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen shows Donnie Yen taking on the role yet again and this time he takes it in some very different and unconventional directions. The film moves into the world of superheroes and a bizarre revenge angle that doesn’t seem fitting at first, but somehow manages to find its footing.

Right from the jump, we begin to understand that this is not the same old Chen Zhen that we have grown accustomed to in film-past. Normally Chen Zhen is a patriotic character who is firmly rooted within turn-of-the-century China. With his button up traditional Chinese wardrobe he is the model of everything we expect of a martial arts leading man. The Legend of the Fist takes us out of the expected world of school rivalries and throws us directly into the opening days of World War II within the opening scene as we witness a very intense battlefield experience. The culture shock is immense and the incredibly slick visual style sets this movie apart from any other representation of Chen Zhen before it. We do eventually travel back to the more civilized view of China, but by establishing this twist early on in the film director Andrew Lau gives the character a chance to be reborn into something entirely different from what we have seen from him in the past.

Donnie Yen no doubt appreciates the chance to step into a more diverse and interesting role but at the same time in doing this the filmmakers ultimately stretch the levels of plausibility far beyond their own limits. While I appreciate the attempt at creating something different, one wonders if the film wouldn’t have been more of its own creation had they simply removed the name “Chen Zhen”. In that sense, if you are in the audience expecting a film that will truly deliver upon the promise of Chen Zhen’s story continuing, you may be slightly disappointed.

Using the character of Chen Zhen in order to make a Chinese superhero seems at first to be a rather fitting idea due to its ties with the legendary Bruce Lee, who was nearly treated as a LITERAL Chinese superhero before and after his death. Donnie Yen’s character even dons a “superhero” costume which quite obviously pays favor to another Bruce Lee role, that of Kato from The Green Hornet TV show, but the concept is thrown slam-bang in the middle of an apparently serious international thriller of sorts. The amalgamation of styles unfortunately leads to a project that is more than a little unstable in choosing precisely what it hopes to be. While watching the film, one gets a distinctly “Christopher Nolan” feel at times because unlike many comic-book movies out there this is a movie that does attempt a very serious tone throughout. The music, which is booming and serves as a orchestrated siren of intensity also seems to call to mind visions of Nolan’s Batman pictures. The difference between projects is of course the fact that Nolan’s film is very distinct in its voice and knows precisely how to keep the level of realism heightened just to the point where the audience can latch onto things and remain focused on his tension-fueled action films.

Legend of the Fist has the action in spades, but when it comes to creating a lot of the necessary tension to sustain its story – things tend to fall rather flat. While the action scenes are fantastic, we never have the ability to really buy into the overall project because it all seems so schizophrenic. Not to mention there’s the overabundance of Chinese nationalism, which seems to be the extent of the subtext throughout the movie and of course we have the requisite Japanese villains who like to remain as two dimensional as they possibly can. While the Japanese are portrayed slightly more fair than in the original Bruce Lee film, this portrayal certainly seems like a regression in comparison to the 90’s vision of reconciliation and understanding that was Fist of Legend.

If you ask the majority of fans, the most important aspect of any film of this genre will easily be the martial arts action. While a good story and performances from the main cast are an integral and important part of any Kung Fu film, at the end of the day the project just isn’t worth anything if the choreography is bad or just plain bland. Thankfully tough, when you have Donnie Yen in the lead, these days that is about as good a promise as one can get for well choreographed martial arts action. Entering into his cinematic twilight years, Yen has really found his niche and continues to push the martial arts genre into directions that it has failed to do so in the past. With Legend of the Fist Yen continues the high spirited and fast paced martial arts mayhem that has made his recent Ip Man titles so popular.

Although his style here isn’t as unique or breathtaking, it does manage to excite more than anyone else you could have thrown into this role. The kicks and punches are all universally brutal, but the true excitement of the project is seeing Donnie Yen channel the spirit of Bruce Lee in his role. During the most tense moments of the film Yen genuinely does a Bruce Lee impression as he carves his way through many enemies. Wearing a purely white version of the traditional Chen Zhen uniform, the love affair with Bruce Lee is brought to the forefront and given closure as he mimics the fallen giant far greater than any Brucesploitation actor could have ever hoped to have done; because in these moments Donnie Yen is equally as passionate in his performance.

The Conclusion
If it hasn’t become obvious at this point, there are moments that I genuinely loved within the movie and there are things that really drew me away from it. I lean a little more towards the negative, but I have to commend Donnie Yen for attempting something unique and different with his role. Strange little detours like this simply aren’t too common within this age of Hong Kong cinema. I give the movie a three out of five and recommend it primarily to Donnie Yen’s hardcore fans or those simply looking for a fun piece of action.