Having fought to avenge China’s national pride against the Japanese occupation forces, martial arts hero Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) faked his death and escaped to Europe where he served on the front line through the First World War. Now back in Shanghai amidst the Roaring Twenties, Chen does his part to aid the Chinese revolutionary cause by protecting those patriots, journalists and protesters marked for death by assassins working for the Japanese. As part of his cover, Chen poses as a playboy frequenting Casablanca, a lavish cabaret fronted by beautiful showgirl Kiki (Shu Qi), mistress of local tycoon Liu Yu-Tan (Anthony Wong). Chen finds himself falling in love with the vivacious club singer, unaware she is really a Japanese spy.
Although Fist of Fury (1972) is the Bruce Lee film most beloved by Chinese fans it is also the one Hong Kong filmmakers can never leave alone. There have been sequels, both official (New Fist of Fury (1976) starring Jackie Chan) and unofficial (Fist of Fury II (1975) with Bruce Li) whilst Jet Li headlined Fist of Legend (1994), a remake every bit as good, maybe even better, than the original. Having previously starred in a television serial adaptation of Fist of Fury back in 1995, Donnie Yen here revisits the role of Chen Zhen with this lavish sequel concocted by the star in conjunction with producer-director-cinematographer Andrew Lau, the man behind Storm Riders (1998) and Infernal Affairs (2002).
The Hong Kong audience cherish the original Fist of Fury for reaffirming national pride. After years of persecution by colonial powers, Chen Zhen fought to prove Chinese were no longer the “sick men of Asia.” By contrast, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen places this message of social empowerment in a more overtly political context. Like such recent films as 1911 (2011), The Founding of a Republic (2009) and Beginning of the Great Revival (2011) this celebrates the Chinese revolution, including real historical figures and casting Chen Zhen as the hero of a more explicitly political struggle. At the same time however, the film drops several postmodern nods to the career of the real Bruce Lee, including his role as Kato in The Green Hornet as Chen Zhen dons the familiar black mask, hat and suit throughout his heroic activities. Which means on top of expanding a martial arts classic into the realm of political sloganeering this is also a superhero movie. Chen even exhibits certain superpowers, including the ability to mentally envision past events in minute detail that borders on the psychic.
Whereas Jet Li was keen to ensure his take on the classic tale was patriotic without seeming jingoistic, including several noble and sympathetic Japanese characters, here the occupiers are simply monstrous sadists with Caucasians for the most part exploitative bullies. When comedy relief cop Hao Long (Huang Bo) delivers a rousing speech denouncing foreigners it captures the anger of the times but also plays uncomfortably to the gallery bordering on jingoistic xenophobia. Even so, Lau details the machinations of the Japanese like a Brian De Palma gangster film and brings a compelling psychological dimension to Chen Zhen’s relationship with Kiki. Each pretends to be someone they are not, circling each other warily, trying to pull of each other’s masks before eventually falling in love. Donnie Yen has come a long way since his wooden early days when he often let his fists do the talking. Here he continues to improve as an actor, delving deep into his slow-burning charisma just to keep up with Shu Qi, one of the brightest talents in Chinese cinema. She yokes real mileage out of her conflicted showgirl turned spy.
Stupendous production design brings the splendour of 1920s Shanghai to vivid life. Yen is suitably dapper in period garb while Shu Qi looks sensational with rouge lips and marcel wave. Coupled with blistering action sequences choreographed by Yen himself, for all its incidental flaws, this proves a gripping, often fascinating hybrid climaxing in tried and tested fashion with Donnie twirling his nunchakus against legions of shrieking Japanese.
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.