Saturday, August 6, 2011

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

Starring Donnie Yen, Shu Qi and Anthony Wong
Written by Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan
Directed by Andrew Lau
Rated R - Martial arts, war violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 106 Minutes

Martial arts are so awesome.  There are few things I enjoy in a movie more than a good fight scene, and martial arts flicks usually manage to provide those in spades.

Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) is among a group of Chinese sent to the front lines of France in World War I.  There, he tries to defend his men to the best of his abilities, but in the heat of battle, his best friend is killed.  Later, he returns to China having assumed the identity of his friend, Qi. 

There, he finds that China has fallen prey to the invasion plans of the Japanese.  In the city of Shanghai, Chen becomes manager of a popular nightclub called Casablanca, where many Japanese go to socialize.  Chen is also involved in the resistance movement against the Japanese, using his position at the club to gather information on them.  One night, he happens upon an assassination attempt against the son of a local warlord.  Donning a costume he sees on display at a nearby clothing store, he intercedes and saves the man's life.  In the process, he becomes a sort of local legend known as the Masked Warrior. 

Not long after, word is intercepted that the Japanese have put out a hit list on a number of powerful local Chinese, and the Masked Warrior takes it on himself to protect as many of them as possible.  One of these men is Chen's good friend, the editor of a local newspaper.  Unfortunately, Chen is unable to save him, and vows revenge. 

What I didn't know going into "Legend of the Fist" is that this is actually a sequel to a TV series... which was a sequel to a Bruce Lee film of the same name, "Fist of Fury."  As such, there are references to the past adventures of Chen Zhen throughout the film that didn't make much sense to me.  Ultimately, Chen has a showdown with the son of a man he apparently killed in "Fist of Fury," which is explained briefly, but only enough for me to understand the basic situation.

Mostly, though, this is a new adventure for the character, even if it loops back on his past somewhat.  Interestingly, the film has a number of similarities to Donnie Yen's "Ip Man," which covers a number of the same themes.  "Legend of the Fist" feels like a superhero version of "Ip Man." 

"Legend of the Fist" is a bit lighter on action than I was hoping it would be.  There's some solid acting and decent writing on display in between, and even a couple of fun musical numbers in the night club, but there are stretches of the film where I could feel my interest waning.  During the fights, however, the film really does come alive.  The action choreography is pretty fantastic.  The opening sequence in France shows a lot of potential for a different kind of war film that I'd be fascinated to watch.  Seeing Donnie Yen's acrobatics and martial arts in the war-torn wreckage of France, taking on German soldiers, is a total hoot.  The superheroic fights later on are equally good, but they feel like they belong in two different movies.

I didn't like "Legend of the Fist" as much as "Ip Man" or its sequel, but it is a pretty entertaining martial arts flick.  The fights, as usual, are the real draw here and when they do come along, "Legend of the Fist" doesn't disappoint.