Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Well Go)
Ostensibly a sequel to the 1972 martial arts classic Fist of Fury, with the talented but far less furious Donnie Yen in the role created by Bruce Lee (and recreated by Jet Li in the 1994 remake Fist of Legend), Legend of the Fist is a colorful and largely incoherent mess, less a movie than a collection of cannibalized ideas stitched together into something resembling a plot.
Set largely in the decadent splendor of 1925 Shanghai, where gangsters made money off the chaos as Japan and Britain made their plays for control of China, it opens with a World War I prologue on the French front lines, takes a turn into Chinese a Casablanca reworked a quasi-musical costume spectacle, and then transforms into a resistance thriller. Yen shucks off the grace and restraint of his Ip Man films to play Chen Zhen as an intent patriot posing as a sleek lounge lizard, his cover as he infiltrates the club, and then take on yet another identity to protect Chinese patriots from Japanese assassins: a costumed superhero that recalls Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet. Shu Qui wobbles through it all as a nightclub chanteuse playing drunk in every other scene and Anthony Wong maintains a level of modest dignity as the Triad nightclub owner, the film’s answer to Rick Blaine, providing neutral territory for enemies to rub elbows while a nationalist mob war builds in the streets.
The entire film, directed by Andrew Lau (of Infernal Affairs fame), seems borrowed (if not blatantly lifted) from one movie or another without bothering to integrate the ideas in any coherent way. There are needlessly complicated layers of hidden identities and double agents, brazen assassinations and a culture of intimidation that gets nary a reaction from the bumbling Chinese cops under corrupt British oversight (are they bought off by the Triads, secretly Japanese collaborationists or simply incompetent?) and all sorts of arcane plots hatched by the occupying Japanese military.
The resentments over the brutal Japanese occupation of China that drove Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend (not mention Ip Man and scores of other films) turn the Japanese here into more than simply scheming invaders. Using tactics that resemble a gangland kingpin conquering a new territory, they are the equivalent of sadistic movie Nazis plotting their ascension over what they target as an inferior race. As if the comparison isn’t already obvious, the film replays the iconic scene from Casablanca where a cadre of officers calls for a traditional song. In this case, of course, it’s a Japanese tune belted out in a nightclub filled with Chinese and a smattering of British and Americans, and the wily piano player (Donnie Yen, of course) upsets the show of nationalist arrogance by launching into… “The Marseilles”? From that moment on, Chen Zhen and the Japanese commander are sworn enemies, but it’s even more personal than that. Would you believe that Chen Zhen killed the commander’s father? The clichés are piled so high that they soon get in the way of one another.
Yen is also the film’s action choreographer and he gives himself some impressive stunts, especially in the opening when he takes on a whole nest of Germans with nothing but fists, feet and bayonets swiped from fallen soldiers. But the martial arts action sequences are shoehorned into the film and Lau’s frantic editing and swooping camerawork chops up his action scenes beyond recognition. Yen is approaching 50 and hasn’t many years left as a martial arts screen hero and leading man so let’s at least enjoy his craft while we can.
Lau made his reputation with the Infernal Affairs movies, which he directed in collaboration with Alan Mak, but he hasn’t made anything that interesting (let alone coherent) since they parted ways. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a strange and unsatisfying hybrid, at times quite gorgeous but never adding up to a story. Lau is a fine cinematographer but no storyteller.
Well Go offers the film in multiple editions: single disc DVD, Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pacl, and two-disc “Collector’s Edition” versions on both DVD and Blu-ray. The former includes two “Behind the Scenes” featurettes, which are little more than montages of production footage. “War Zone,” which is subtitled, offers footage of pyrotechnics and Donnie Yen’s action scenes as he attacks the German soldiers in the World War I prologue, while “Casablanca” offer scenes from the nightclub without subtitles, but does give us Yen playing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in an impromptu bit.
The “Collector’s Edition” versions offer a bonus disc with six more “Behind the Scenes” montages (running about half an hour all together) and 50 minutes of interviews with director Andrew Lau, producer Gordon Chan and the five leading actors.