Andrew Lau’s “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” revives the popular Chinese kung fu hero (most famously portrayed by Bruce Lee in 1972’s “Fist of Fury”). The new Chen Zhen installment is decked out in a Hollywood style gloss that prettifies the production, giving it a cosmetic heft, but can’t bolster its sagging dud of a screenplay. Set in 1920s Shanghai, during the time of the Japanese occupation, the story pits the titular hero against a cabal of Japanese spies and military commanders bent on conquering China.
After his battlefield heroics are on acrobatic display in the movie’s WWI preamble, Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) and his ragtag comrades return to their native Shanghai. There, Zhen infiltrates the glitzy Casablanca nightclub, whose owner Liu (Anthony Wong), a known war profiteer, welcomes wealthy British expats and even hard-drinking Japanese officers for whom Casablanca is an ad hoc canteen. Zhen cozies up to the club’s seductive star-performer Kiki (Shu Qi). But what he’s really after is rooting out the burgeoning Japanese conspiracy to take over China.
The heat ramps up once the Japanese release a death list, publicizing the names of everyone in the city whose days are numbered. The game is on between Zhen and the scowl-prone Japanese Colonel Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata) to see how many death-list targets Zhen can save. Dressed up in dapper white duds during the day, Zhen suits up in what resembles a glossy black chauffer’s outfit, cap and mask (think Kato from “The Green Hornet”) during his nighttime kung-fu confrontations with Japanese assassins. Along the way, Zhen unmasks Kiki’s motives, and her loyalties are tested. But all roads lead to a wall-splitting, glass-shattering showdown between Chen and Chikaraishi.
Unless you are a diehard Chinese nationalist reactionary, still smarting from Japan’s aggression in the 20’s and 30’s, “Legend of the Fist’s” emotionalism packs very little punch. The nationalist fervor is laid on in broad strokes; long passages of the movie are glazed over in mushy, uninvolving patter as characters make fiery speeches, bemoaning the demise of their homeland, or protest bravely, rallying their countrymen into the spirit of unification. Understandably, all these hokey, operatic gestures suit “Legend of the Fist’s” intentions as popular Chinese entertainment befitting a mainland audience. But they’re inadequate in terms of hooking in general viewers elsewhere to the material.
Sure to win over action-movie fans (particularly kung fu enthusiasts), however, are the movie’s bruising, impressive action scenes beginning with the “Saving Private Ryan”-esque opener to a mid-movie smash-‘em-up inside a newspaper office to the climatic me-against-the-world hell-raiser inside Chikaraishi’s dojo. Chen Zhen’s super-heroic fighting skills – a whirlwind of pulverizing punches and gravity-defying leaps – find the eloquence that the movie’s hopeless, dialogue-driven stretches fail to. Adroit editing, camerawork and staging keep in step with Yen’s formidable martial arts mastery, showcasing a talent on par with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Directed by: Andrew Lau
Written by: Cheung Chi Sing, Gordon Chan, Lui Koon Nam, Frankie Tam
Starring: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo