Title: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
Director: Andrew Lau
Starring: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Yang Zhou, Bo Huang
A heady blend of spy thriller, period piece political drama and martial arts action flick, Chinese import “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” reaffirms star Donnie Yen’s quiet, universal charisma, while also tossing more sand on the tired, erroneous notion that more densely plotted films from the Orient can’t emotionally engage Western audiences.
The iconic character of Chen Zhen, originally created by writer Ni Kuang for the Bruce Lee vehicle “Fist of Fury”, is a cultural mainstay of both Hong Kong and mainland China — a sort of crusading, quasi-nationalist martial arts Robin Hood, who’s spawned a healthy blend of record-breaking feature films and a TV series, and been embodied by a variety of martial arts legends. After a badass opening segment set in France during World War I, this version of the Zhen legend unfolds in the 1920s, in a divided Shanghai, against the historical backdrop of a rising Japanese militarism and Chinese nationalist resistance.
With the city rife with ethnic and economic conflict, the Casablanca club of tycoon Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) is a swinging hotbed of spies, mobsters, English and British diplomats, and on-the-take police officers, including frumpy cop Huang Haolong (Bo Huang). Everyone is jostling for position and control in what is assumed to be a much more pronounced coming conflict. It’s here that Chen Zhen (Yen), posing under an assumed identity as a mustachioed piano man (Billy Joel has nothing on him), first wins the trust of Liu, who places him in charge of the club. Zhen then falls for a sultry hostess/singer Kiki (Shu Qi), who may also be more than she seems. When a so-called Japanese “death list” of Chinese intellectuals and other business elites gets leaked, Zhen, already a leading member of an underground resistance movement, undertakes a head-cracking secret identity, the “Masked Warrior,” to try to save the local populace. Even when his identity is uncovered, it doesn’t deter him.
Director Andrew Lau, who had great success with the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy a little less than a decade ago, again shows his skill for highlighting shifty motivations, equally informed by political and personal calculation. Working from a script by Gordon Chan, “Legend of the Fist” unfolds as something of a mix between Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”, the more adrenalized “Bourne” movies, and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German”. The production design is top notch, and Lau, serving as he often does as his own cinematographer, delivers beautifully composed shots along with smartly edited action scenes. He also nicely integrates some real-life newsreel footage into the proceedings early on, to play up the movie’s historical underpinnings.
The film’s fight sequences are well choreographed (also by Yen), and showcase a savvy, engaging blend of the fantastical and more practical. Despite the nonfiction roots of its setting, this isn’t a movie overly concerned with or married to staid notions of realism. In fact, the opening set piece, in which Zhen dashes across a hot zone and improvises a rescue of his compatriots by singlehandedly neutralizing a nest of German snipers, is stupendously over-the-top, and yet it still provides more of a cathartic kick than any of the posturing, preciously decorative set pieces from “Sucker Punch”.
Like Yen’s recent “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster”, this movie works a plotline that displays a healthy distrust of outsiders attempting to control the fate of China, with Anglo interlopers seen as having a corruptive influence on the local police. The main villains here, though, are the Japanese. And if some of the antagonistic dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose (“Let’s take as much as we can and destroy the rest — the resources here are rich,” says one Japanese general; “That’s a lot of people to kill,” says another), “Legend of the Fist” ably communicates pan-Asian cultural division while never shortchanging its chief mission as a piece of slick, populist-crusader entertainment.
Written by: Brent Simon