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Legend of the Fist:
The Return of Chen Zhen
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

Donnie Yen as Chen Zhen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.
Chinese: 精武風雲.陳真  
Year: 2010  
Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  
Producer: Gordon Chan Car-Seung, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Writer: Cheung Chi-Sing, Gordon Chan Car-Seung, Lui Koon-Nam, Frankie Tam
Action: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan  
Cast: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Huang Bo, Ryuichi Kohata, Akira, Huo Siyan, Shawn Yue, Zhou Yang, Yasuaki Kurata, Chen Jiajia, Ma Yue, Zhang Songwen, Gregory Wong Chung-Yiu
The Skinny:

Serviceable action and a fine production make Legend of the Fist decent popcorn fodder. However, director Andrew Lau eschews real storytelling in favor of empty style, needless flash and lazy screenwriting that should disappoint just about anyone who likes quality with their motion pictures. Great for audiences who want to see Donnie Yen beat up lots of people but bad for everyone else.

by Kozo:

Superficially, theyíre quite a team-up. Reigning martial arts superstar Donnie Yen and ballyhooed Infernal Affairs co-director Andrew Lau join forces for the anticipated martial arts actioner Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, which presents a brand new chapter in the legend of righteous martial arts hero Chen Zhen. The character is a particularly storied one, having been played by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li, as well as by Yen himself in the Fist of Fury nineties TV drama. The spin this time is that Chen Zhen survived after exacting vengeance on the Japanese who murdered his master Huo Yuanjia (a.k.a. that Fearless guy) and, after a stint fighting Germans, he went on to become a masked superhero dedicated to fighting the Japanese. Again. Chen Zhen: he fights injustice, as long as it isnít Chinese.

Like both Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend, Legend of the Fist has some basis in reality, but twists history and reality to tell its story. Legend of the Fist supposes that after Chen Zhen (Yen, naturally) caused havoc in the Honkou Dojo, he went to Europe and fought the Germans in WWI alongside many other Chinese laborers, all of them mistreated by the cowardly French soldiers. After the war, Chen Zhen returns to Shanghai where he takes on the identity of one of his fallen comrades and works with the resistance, looking to quell the power of the encroaching Japanese. As part of his plan, he works for club owner Liu Yitian (Anthony Wong), who he charms with his prodigious piano skills and suave, pencil-thin moustache. Instantly, Chen Zhen Ė or Qi Tianyuan, as heís now known Ė becomes a partner at Liuís club, called ďCasablanca.Ē

Just as quickly as he earns Liuís trust, Chen Zhen earns the attention and/or suspicion of Kiki (Shu Qi), Casablancaís star singer/hostess and (Not really a spoiler!) a Japanese spy. Besides speaking questionably coherent Japanese, Kiki works for General Chikaraishi (Ryuichi Kohata of City of Life and Death), the new leader of the Honkou Dojo and one of those bad guys who kills underlings and naysayers without so much as a second thought. Part of Kikiís job is spying on Qi Tianyuan, but sheís also supposed to shadow potential British rabble-rousers and keep an eye on Vivian (Huo Siyan of My Name is Fame), girlfriend to General Zeng (Shawn Yue), whose existence may or may not cause problems for the Japanese. Thereís a laundry list of metaphorical landmines here, among them some tense jockeying between Chinese factions, possible collusion with the Japanese, and a ďDeath ListĒ issued by the Japanese to rout their enemies. With all these factors in play, how can Chen Zhen and his band of rebels seek justice and do it in a clandestine, secret way?

The answer: they canít, or Andrew Lau and his screenwriters canít figure out a way to tell that story. Thereís political intrigue buried in Legend of the Fist, but thatís just what it is: buried. Despite being overly plotted and full of potent drama, the storyline possesses zero tension, and only serves to clumsily string together action set pieces and manufactured staredowns between underdeveloped characters. Anthony Wongís Liu Yitian is given inner life by the actor, but the character is underused. Conversely, the bad guys do a lot but arenít fleshed out besides being evil and/or clichťd. Shu Qi and Huang Bo, as comic relief policeman Inspector Huang, each get their share of screentime, with both performing decently. Still, at this point in her career, Shu Qi is far too good an actress to be working as mere support in Andrew Lau films. Hereís an idea: maybe he can actually hire her as the main star, rather than as support for his usual male leads.

This is the wrong film to be asking for a Shu Qi starring role though Ė after all, it belongs to Donnie Yen and nowadays itís pretty difficult to steal movies from Don-Don. Yenís character here is familiar; heís a righteous, angry, suave, debonair and utterly too-cool-for-school dude with a difficult yet heroic past. This is your standard over-written hero character defined by Donnie Yenís flamboyant and self-conscious acting. Yen has earned solid acting cred in recent years, but only because heís been able to find the right role: Ip Man. As the Wing Chun master, Yen was subtle and didnít actually seem to be acting Ė something he doesnít accomplish here. Adding to the familiarity is that Chen Zhen is basically your Bruce Lee fan-fiction creation, meaning nods to Fist of Fury, The Green Hornet (Chen Zhenís superhero get-up is Kato, natch), plus some Lee-style yelping and yowing. When Yen isnít aping Lee, heís usually aping himself, with even some action (e.g. the amazing Donnie wind-up punch) getting recycled. Yen still has many more films coming out, so a greatest hits collection doesnít seem necessary just yet.

Overall, Legend of the Fist is more of the same Don-Don, with his super-coolness magnified by Andrew Lauís needlessly flashy direction, which turns what should be normal narrative sequences into unnecessary montage. As an empty stylist, Lau is among Hong Kongís best, but he needs some help (i.e. Infernal Affairs co-director Alan Mak) to put together a real story or characters. They have a good production in place; Legend of the Fist was shot largely on the same impressive set as last yearís Bodyguards and Assassins, and the film certainly looks good. However, the film lacks real drama. Character relationships are explained rather than created, and few people make interesting or dramatic choices. Unlike the seminal Fist of Fury, Chen Zhen isn't a character who changes or grows - here, heís primed to go into superhero mode from frame one, with his reason for donning a mask little more than convenience. The impetus for Chen Zhenís crimefighting only exists in the filmís premise, and not inside the actual narrative.

At least the action is mostly satisfying. Itís overly stylish and is sometimes laugh-out-loud silly (see: Donnie Yenís angled run and also his Popeye punch) but itís also fast, entertaining and dynamic enough to please. Itís not dramatic, however. The action sequences only exist to demonstrate that Chen Zhen is better than everyone else. The filmís final fight does see Chen Zhen falter slightly, but thatís only because the story requires it, and not because the villain ever seems to be our heroís equal. This is simply lazy, unimaginative action filmmaking. Furthering the disappointment is the obvious nationalism, which includes scenes of indignant Chinese marching down the street protesting those dastardly Japanese. Given current events, maybe some Chinese will buy into such clumsy sensationalism, but here it just feels like by-the-numbers drama meant to capitalize on a growing thematic trend. But thatís what Legend of the Fist pretty much is: by the numbers, and lacking a story, imagination or execution to make it more than just a forgettable and only marginally entertaining genre film. Both Andrew Lau and Donnie Yen have seen better days. So has Chen Zhen. (Kozo 2010)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mega Star / Media Asia
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image credit: Media Asia

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