Following on from the success of the martial arts powerhouse that was the story of Bruce Lee’s master, Ip Man, Donnie Yen strikes back at the kung fu scene with another barrage of flailing limbs and swinging fists.
Just in time to mark Bruce Lee’s would-be 70th birthday, acclaimed cinematographer and director Andrew Lau has brought back the iconic figure of Hong Kong filmic martial arts – Chen Zhen. This overzealous symbol of justice has been played by the likes of Bruce Lee and Jet Li, and the Bruce homage leaks through this film like drinking with a sieve.
In a refreshing take on the martial arts epic, the writers have sought to throw in a little less superficial story in favour of a little emotion, a bit of story and a wee bit of acting. Let’s not get carried away though – characters here are still clinching with that third dimension, trying to escape the inevitability of being 2D.
But for what is essentially an all-out brawler action flick, the story and acting do get to take a fairly meaty stage next to the skilfully choreographed fights from Donnie (who actually flexes some acting muscle for a welcome change).
As far as the story goes, we see Chen Zhen live through fighting in the trenches alongside Allied troops in the First World War. The end of the war sees Japan’s continuing invasion of China while the world sits back and watches.
Post-war Chen Zhen lives a double life, covertly working against Japanese occupation from a post in an amoral business hub of a nightclub, conspicuously dubbed Casablanca. The filmic homage to Humphrey Bogart’s world isn’t very subtle, but in such an upfront, all-out action film, we can let that slide.
Chen Zhen moves from double to triple life as he dons the black mask and suit to almost super-heroically take on the Japanese as the Masked Warrior (not much unlike Jay Chou in Green Hornet).
On a somewhat superficial but very essential side, Legend of the Fist is visually gorgeous. That’s mostly thanks to director Andrew Lau and his expert camerawork.
Andrew Lau began his career as a cinematographer, and earned his wings on the back of some of Asia’s greatest film makers. He worked on the early pictures of Wong Kar Wai as he shaped new wave Hong Kong cinema decades ago, and took up a post with Hong Kong’s biggest production studio, Shaw Brothers, early on.
He’s brought the experience of years of standing behind the camera in the Shaw Brothers’ barrage of titles alongside the directorial prowess of some of the best in the business to make a kung fu beauty with a little bit of heart.
For those keen on the blood-thirsty side of the action, the fight sequences get an A+. Donnie Yen’s mastery of multiple styles, having dabbled in everything from Taekwondo to Karate, shines here, with sequences mixing a range of aggressive styles with a slight hint of Mexican lucha libre wrestling.
Set pieces are built beautifully to be destroyed devastatingly, and there’s nary a spot to get bored of the action.
A bit of a punch on doesn’t stray too far from the drama either, with Donnie’s style switching to cater for every feeling. When character Chen Zhen finds his fellow soldiers under attack in the trenches of WWI, he storms in with a violent athleticism that sees him hurling through the air with fists and knives thrown down in a hubris of blood and dust, camera close at his heels.
There’s even an (unsubtle) hint of Bruce Lee that comes out, namely in the final dojo confrontation that mirrors Lee’s take on Chen Zhen. From the high-pitched exhalations to the Mandarin outfit on the expert fighter, it’s a homage fitting an industry hero.
There’s a signature hint of humour and quirk mixed in amongst otherwise heartstring-tugging sadness and fast-paced action, not unlike the works of Joon-ho Bong and the aforementioned Wong Kar Wai. This is mostly on the back of Huang Bo who adds the treat of a little comic relief.
Functioning just like the old school of US war movies, the anti-Japanese sentiment runs high in this flick, so you might have to mentally dodge all of the patriotism to enjoy some of the story.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen returns to the legendary kung fu character to the fray, and he’s delivered by the most capable of hands. With a star line-up and expert craftsmen behind the camera, what you’re delivered on screen is a martial arts masterpiece that circumvents the stigma of ‘remake.’