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“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” – The Cannibalization of an Icon

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.

Donnie Yen channels Kato

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.

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