'Chen Zhen:' Out Of Legend, An Action Hero Returns

Peter Pandemonium: As Sino-Japanese tensions escalate after World War I, Donnie Yen's Chen Zhen flies (and kicks, and rolls) in the face of many a peril in Legend of the Fist.

Peter Pandemonium: As Sino-Japanese tensions escalate after World War I, Donnie Yen's Chen Zhen flies (and kicks, and rolls) in the face of many a peril in Legend of the Fist. Variance Films hide caption

itoggle caption Variance Films

Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen

  • Director: Andrew Lau
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 106 minutes

Not rated

With: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo, Kohata Ryuichi

In Mandarin, Japanese and English with English subtitles

Using not one but two world wars as backdrops, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is an exhilarating kung fu romp. The movie is playfully sweeping, but its pivotal action sequences all focus on a single man: iconic hero Chen Zhen, here played by martial arts supernova Donnie Yen.

The fictional Chen is an enduring figure in Chinese action cinema, and the role has previously gone to both Jet Li and Bruce Lee. In fact Legend of the Fist is sort of a sequel to Lee's 1972's Fist of Fury, in which Chen attacked a Japanese martial arts dojo in Shanghai, exacting revenge on the men who murdered his master.

According to the new movie, Chen then escaped to France as one of many Chinese brought to Europe as laborers during World War I. These workers weren't supposed to fight, but when Chen and his cohorts find themselves on the front lines, our hero has no choice but to take out a German machine gun nest, solo and unarmed. It's an action sequence in the classic Hong Kong style — ridiculous, yet elegant and stirring.

After the excitement, Chen returns to Shanghai, assuming the identity of a friend who died in the war. Disguised only by a fake mustache (and occasionally a mask), Chen settles in at the Casablanca, one of those wonderfully cinematic 1930s Shanghai nightclubs where Chinese, Japanese and European patrons mingle, flirt, drink and sometimes fight. The place is run by the quietly subversive Liu (Anthony Wong, who's among Hong Kong's most reliable character actors).

Chen plays the piano and falls for hostess and singer Kiki (Taiwanese stunner Shu Qi, charming in one of her less challenging roles). With Sino-Japanese antagonism on the rise, it's fairly obvious that Kiki doesn't share Chen's dedication to a free and independent China, although it takes Chen, who's supernaturally alert to other dangers, a long time to notice.

Legend of the Fist was helmed (and photographed) by Andrew Lau, who co-directed the much grittier Infernal Affairs, the source for Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Naturalism, though, is nowhere on Lau's agenda this time: Shot on sets and rendered in shades of blue, pink and mist, the movie looks as if it wants to be a musical. Even the Japanese army's "death list" is color coded: red for dead, blue for fled.

Dangerous Games: Chen falls for Shanghai nightclub hostess Kiki (Shu Qi) — though it's far from clear he and she are on the same side. i i

Dangerous Games: Chen falls for Shanghai nightclub hostess Kiki (Shu Qi) — though it's far from clear he and she are on the same side. Variance Films hide caption

itoggle caption Variance Films
Dangerous Games: Chen falls for Shanghai nightclub hostess Kiki (Shu Qi) — though it's far from clear he and she are on the same side.

Dangerous Games: Chen falls for Shanghai nightclub hostess Kiki (Shu Qi) — though it's far from clear he and she are on the same side.

Variance Films

While Kiki sometimes coos a number, the film's two most-heard tunes are "Auld Lang Syne" and "The Internationale," neither designed for hoofing. But there's a little Gene Kelly in the gracefully choreographed action scenes, often rendered in montage, and a bug-eyed local police inspector (Huang Bo) serves as comic relief from the movie's villain, ruthless Japanese Col. Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryuichi).

The violence gets bloodier as the story proceeds, and Lau's depiction of roundups, torture and executions does convey the brutality of Japan's invasion of China. The movie is only slightly interested in history, however. Ultimately, all of Shanghai's resistance comes down to a single man, who returns to the dojo for a showdown with Chikaraishi. The Japanese ogre is, of course, the son of Chen's adversary from years before.

If charged with not taking World War II very seriously, Lau and his collaborators would have to plead guilty. But Legend of the Fist is flashy and fun, and a nifty showcase for Yen, the movie's fight choreographer as well as its star. Only historical literalists could be alarmed that the movie ends with Chen Zhen on the road, apparently headed toward a sequel.

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