Director: Wai-keung Lau (aka Andrew Lau)
Screenplay: Gordon Chan
Producers: Gordon Chan & Wai-keung Lau
Starring: Donnie Yen, Qi Shu, Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue, Yasuaki Kurata, Ryu Kohata
Country: Hong Kong & China
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 105 min
Donnie Yen has been enjoying a resurgence of success in recent years with big releases such as Ip Man and Flashpoint raising his profile among western audiences who previously focused their attention on stars such as Jet Li for their martial arts fixes. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a big budget vehicle directed by Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) aimed at keeping this success afloat and possibly try to give a little more substance (and awards potential) to his roles. 'Try' is the key word there though as it's an enjoyable film but it reaches too far at times.
Legend of the Fist continues the story of the legendary martial arts master Chen Zhen, featured in the classic films Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) and Fist of Legend. In Shanghai, a few years after his supposed death and in the height of World War II, a mysterious stranger (Chen Zhen of course – played by Donnie Yen) works his way up the ranks in the Shanghai mafia whilst disguising himself as a masked hero in the dark of night to take out the city's various underworld leaders. In amongst this are various problems with the occupying Japanese forces and a beautiful spy who has her eyes set on Chen.
It's a well mounted film that makes the most of it's budget with lavish sets and some colourful and slick cinematography. Unfortunately it's also quite messy with far too many characters and plot strands that aren't particularly well developed or intertwined. In fact, after an hour and a half of political intrigue the final showdown ends up being about a personal vendetta barely mentioned in the film previously. As is to be expected in mainstream Hong Kong/Chinese releases this is all handled very bluntly with lashings of melodrama and over-zealous patriotism too, but if you've seen as many of these types of films as I have you can let it slide.
This is a Donnie Yen film though despite it's efforts to be something more, so the big question is how does the action hold up? Very well luckily. The film opens with a ludicrously over the top scene set during Chen Zhen's time in the army as he single-handedly takes on a platoon of soldiers with his bare hands (and a couple of knives). It's a million miles from the gritty war set pieces we're used to these days after Saving Private Ryan and has all the realism of The Wizard of Oz but boy is it fun and grabbed my attention from the get go. There is a lull in action after that and much of the film's first hour focuses on the drama, but there are enough fights scattered around to keep you waiting for the inevitable finale.
The last half an hour or so is crammed with hard hitting action set pieces although I was mildly disappointed with the final showdown – it had drama behind it but there was more posturing than actual choreography. The lead up to it is impressive though and the action is generally very well choreographed by Yen himself. As is becoming the norm with his films it's very brutal and you really feel each punch. There is a lot of wire-work and the occasional CGI enhancement which will put off purists, but I never felt it was distracting and there are still some impressive moves on display to show off Yen's skills as a martial artist.
Overall it's an enjoyable film with some strong action set pieces, but ultimately trips itself up when it tries to be anything more than that, losing the audience's interest with it's overcooked, messy and bland drama. The WWII setting is a welcome spin on the genre though and it's lavish production values help the melodrama go down more smoothly whilst you wait for the next fight.
The DVD is out on 31st January in the UK, released by Metrodome. Features include a lengthy, but unfocused documentary which is mainly un-subtitled and seems to be a selection of raw behind the scenes footage rather than an actual documentary. It's still interesting to see in this barely edited format but tests your patience. You also get a fairly decent interview with Donnie Yen and a digital copy of the film.
Review by David Brook