Andrew Lau, of Infernal Affairs fame pays tribute to Bruce Lee by reincarnating one of his most memorable characters in the formulaic yet passable The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Donnie Yen, certainly the most prominent Hong Kong action star of the moment, has begun to star in a series of historical films, which consistently feature underdeveloped characters and too few action scenes. Over the last two years, he delivered two films loosely based on the life of Ip Man. Here, he tackles the same time period, even if he’s playing a fictional character this time out.
The Legend of the Fist is a sequel, of sorts, to the 1972 Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury (the villain here is the son of the previous film’s bad guy). In it, Yen plays a revolutionary freedom fighter, who is struggling to reunite China and overthrow the Japanese occupation. The setting here is Shanghai, in 1925, which allows Lau to create images on an epic canvas. The visual opulence extends to the elaborate art direction, CG flybys, and no shortage of gaudy period detail. With much of the action taking place in the western-influenced jazz club “Casablanca,” glamour has as much place here as brutal action.
That glamour is best represented by actress Shu Qi, who plays a double-agent spy and showgirl named Kiki. Her relationship with Chen Zhen develops along predictable lines, but it does prevent the movie from feeling like a monotonous series of fight scenes. Still, fans of Yen’s action movies will not likely be too disappointed, as Legend has a series of scenes that feature torture, rape, and more assassinations than one can count. Most of the energy on that front, though, is focused on three extravagant set pieces. The opening sequence, which takes place in France during World War I, sets a bar of outrageous action that the rest of the film fails to match. Featuring a series of brutal knife kills and awesome acrobatic action from Yen, it definitely provides the film’s greatest thrills. A crowd scuffle on a rainy street, and a finale at a dojo, in which Chen Zhen takes on a crowd of Japanese soldiers, provide the other two battles of note.
The Legend of the Fist is blatantly commercial, but that’s not entirely bad. Yen may not be an accomplished actor, but playing a masked hero here, he brings much of the same charisma to his role that made Bruce Lee a star. Lau acquits himself well during the fight scenes, but some of the expository sequences are clumsily edited, giving the movie a slightly incoherent feeling. It shifts tones unpredictably, and shuttles characters on to screen, only to kill them later, without achieving much emotional impact. The movie only really comes to life when there’s fighting on screen, which is unfortunate, if not entirely unexpected.