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Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
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by Jay Seaver

"Beats kung fu superheroics to a pulp."
3 stars

"Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen" starts off in a familiar way, with text explaining a bit of Chinese history, this time involving how Chinese laborers served in Europe during World War I. Most aren't trained as as soldiers, so they're getting pinned down and picked off, until Donnie Yen's Chen Zhen suddenly remembers that he's a kung fu superhero. Then things get kind of awesome. It's a shame this doesn't happen more often, because the movie could occasionally use some more of this sort of larger-than-life fun.

Seven years after that battle, Chen Zhen has returned to Shanghai using the name of a fallen comrade. It's a contentious time, with Japan looking to expand its influence on the mainland, European powers making their presence known, and local factions splintered and fighting among themselves. In Shanghai, the Casablanca club is the center of everything, and owner Liu Yutian ("Anthony" Wong Chau-sang) brings Chen on as manager and partner. Information seems to be leaking from the Casablanca to Colonel Takashi Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata), but can Chen Zhen find the source of the leak before the Japanese run through everybody on their "death list" - especially with the club's sultry headliner Kiki (Shu Qi) certain that "Qi" is more than he seems.

The Chen Zhen story is a popular one; the character has been played by Bruce Lee (Fist of Fury) and Jet Li (Fist of Legend; co-written and directed by the new film's screenwriter, Gordon Chan); heck, Yen himself played Chen in a TV series fifteen years earlier. This movie in many ways feels more like a sequel to those projects than a remake of them; it's mentioned that Chen Zhen fakes his death because he's wanted for killing the man who murdered his teacher, more or less how Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend end. That Chen apparently fakes his death twice - once in Shanghai and once in Europe - is unfortunately an example of how sloppy Chan's script is. Perhaps a Chinese audience will have more familiarity with the basic story and thus be better equipped to fill in the blanks, but it too often seems like Chan has more ideas than he has room for. For instance, a lot of time is spent on two Chinese generals negotiating (with a third, unseen one referenced quite a bit), but all this talk never really matters. We're quite deliberately pointed to the scarring copper bracelets that the soldiers in the opening segment wear, but then we never really see the scars and the bracelets that do matter are more or less unrelated. The last act is really just a complete mess until the inevitable showdown between Chen and Chikaraishi (and half the Japanese army).

It's worth sticking around for that confrontation, though, because this is the sort of thing Donnie Yen excels at. Yen is both the action director and main participant in the fight scenes, and while this movie could perhaps use a few more of these set pieces - the middle of the movie isn't quite as action-packed as one might perhaps like - the ones that kick off and conclude the Legend of the Fist are impressive. Describing Chen Zhen as a superhero is not far off - during several scenes effects seem to be used to make him run inhumanly fast and jump impossibly high, with some blows throwing people extra-far. Plus, he spends much of the middle of the movie dressed up in a costume that's a dead ringer for the one Bruce Lee wore on The Green Hornet. That's not the only bit of paying homage to Lee that's going on; the way Yen loses his shirt and gets cut up, pulls out the nunchucks, and even the way he yells during battle are meant to be callbacks to the Fist of Fury star. The two influences aren't always a perfect combination, and director "Andy" Lau Wai-keung is a little cut-happy at times, but it works for the big fights, whether it's a shot of Chen Zhen running at a German position with a bayonet he'll need later in his mouth or being amazed that having seen him moving at super-speed doesn't take much away from the rapid-fire barrages Yen can release. Even in the action scene that comes midway through the movie, Yen gives us a solid fight scene amid the heightened reality.

Yen's a fair actor, too, although he gets a little lost here, with what amounts to two secret identities that never really give him a chance to establish who Chen Zhen is when he's not pretending to be playboy Qi or the masked warrior. Shu Qi, on the other hand, seems to know exactly what to do with Kiki, combining the femme fatale and dizzy, boozy aspects of the character in a way that looks easy but never seems to be done nearly this well, at least until the script starts to pull her in too many different directions. Anthony Wong Chau-sang has been playing parts like Liu for years and gives it the right sort of gruff authority sprinkled with a little wit, while Huang Bo is fairly entertaining as the comic relief detective (it's not his fault that he's saddled with what seems like the obligatory patriotic speech). Ryu Kohata and the other villains are a little rough; they'd twirl their mustaches if they had the right kind - although, to be fair, several are clearly dubbed.

The main problem, though, is not with the cast, but with the tone of the film. Andy Lau Wai-keung never really seems to decide which way he wants to go with it. On the one hand, the movie has glossy, elaborate period sets and costume design, and Chen Zhen is often presented more as whimsical superhero than gritty pulp character (in fact, the anachronistic term "superhero" is used in the dialog, though it may be an approximation of something used in wuxia fiction). And yet, a large chunk of the movie is quite grim, with a serious body count and a tendency to linger on the bloody death and injury. The glamorous surface doesn't feel connected to the griminess underneath. Similarly, Lau seems to have trouble corralling all of the various threads of the script into one smooth narrative.

I wish it had all come together; Yen's a natural to bridge the superhero and kung fu worlds, and the filmmakers have spent well to make a movie that looks and sounds great. Instead, "Legend of the Fist" has too much unnecessary detail and not enough fun to match its flashy visuals.

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originally posted: 05/21/11 14:56:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 67th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 67th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/28/13 KingNeutron Great action scenes, but some parts were a little slow 4 stars
5/23/11 Ming Great kung-fu movie..Loes of actions and suspenses 4 stars
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  22-Apr-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 14-Jun-2011



Directed by
  Wai-keung Lau

Written by
  Gordon Chan

  Donnie Yen
  Qi Shu
  Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
  Yasuaki Kurata
  Shawn Yue
  Karl Dominik

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