Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen ***
Directed by: Andrew Lau.
Written by: Gordon Chan.
Starring: Donnie Yen (Chen Zhen), Qi Shu (Kiki), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Liu Yutian), Yasuaki
Ryu Kohata (Colonel Chikaraishi), Akira (Sasaki), Bo Huang (Huang), Jiajia Chen (Huang Lan), Siyan Huo (Weiwei), Zhou Yang (Qi Zhishan), Karl Dominik (Vincent).
Legend of the Fist opens with the best martial arts setpiece in recent memory. Donnie Yen, playing WWI hero Chen Zhen, finds himself, along with his ill equipped countrymen, abandoned by their allies French behind enemy lines with little hope of survival, but instead of giving into defeat, he takes matters into his own hands. What follows is cinematic martial arts at its finest. It seems like director Andrew Lau (who made the Infernal Affairs trilogy, that became The Departed in Martin Scorsese’s hands) wanted to establish this movie’s martial arts credentials right off the bat. After all, Chen Zhen has been played in the past by Bruce Lee (in Fists of Fury) and Jet Li (in Fist of Legend), so Donnie Yen has big shoes to fill. In that opening scene, where he moves with impossible speed and grace, Yen does just that.
But Legend of the Fist is not just another martial arts epic – and that’s both its strength and its weakness. Yen, like many cinema martial artists, isn’t normally hired for his acting abilities, but by what he can do physically. And once the movie shifts from the battlefields of WWI, to Shanghai in the 1920s, as the Japanese are ready to invade, there are still many martial arts setpieces, as Yen’s Chen Zhen dons a black mask to protect Chinese patriots from the invading Japanese out to kill them. But Lau, who navigated a tricky, intricate plot in the Infernal Affairs movies, tries to do the same thing here.
Here, he has made a movie about about shifting loyalities rooted in national politics. We know from the start that Chen Zhen is a good guy, and that Japanese Colonel Chikaraishi (Yasuaki Ryu Kohata) is a bad guy, but everyone else occupies shades of grey. You never quite get a handle on what night club owner Liu (Anthony Wong) for example is thinking, and Kiki (Qi Shu), who is Chen Zhen’s love interest is an even more complex character. No one it quite what they seem.
Lau is a talented filmmaker, and here, he indulges himself on his love of old movies. Much of the action happens in Liu’s nightclub, called Casablanca, where Chen Zhen has disguised himself as the piano player. The references to that most famous of classic movies are in practically every scene – a Japanese song that gets drowned out by the Chinese singing one of their patriotic tunes the most obvious of them. No matter what else is happening in the film, it is also interesting to look at.