Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen



Opens April 22, 2011

Andrew Lau’s “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” is popcorn stuff of the Hong Kong variety. This one feels like Christopher Nolan doing a true martial-arts film (which hopefully he will someday soon).



Lau is one of Hong Kong’s best action directors, the man behind (with co-director Alan Mak) the classic “Infernal Affairs” series (2002–05), which became the inspiration for “The Departed” (2006), Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture winner. Typical of Lau’s work, he combines blistering fight sequences in “Legend of the Fist” with a storyline that keeps us—thankfully—guessing.



Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) is the man here, a formidable graduate of the famous Jing Wu Athletic Association, a training ground for fighters in Shanghai founded in the early twentieth century. While the school is real, the character Chen is fictional, first created by Bruce Lee in Lo Wei’s “Fist of Fury” (1972). This movie, then, is a sort of sequel.



We first catch up with Chen far from home, fighting together with other Chinese soldiers on the Allied side in World War I. In the film’s opening minutes, Chen kills many, many armed Germans to protect his friends—with basically no weaponry of his own. He is introduced to us as a one-man army.



Yen looks to be, from what we see in “Legend of the Fist,” the next big action star to come out of Hong Kong and win the allegiance of sizable Western audiences. He has the stunts and fighting down and a fierceness in his eyes that can say it all in a close-up.



For reasons not explained well in this film, Chen decides to take the alias of one of his fallen comrades on his return to Shanghai, becoming Qi Tianyuan. We next see him speaking at secret strategy meetings as a leader of the resistance movement against Japan’s sinister aims in China.



One of the admirable things about this film is how much history and political intrigue Lau is able to mix into an action-based narrative. We even get a couple of interludes of intriguing historical footage.



Chen’s cover for his resistance activities, besides his new name, is his new job as manager of Shanghai’s hottest club, the Casablanca. This is where it all goes down: where the Chinese, Japanese, and British mix, and nobody knows for sure who is on which side, who is spying on who, and, most of all, who is going to get offed next. It is definitely a watch-your-back kind of joint.



The Chinese themselves are split into various factions. Plus you have Japanese people pretending to be Chinese and probably Chinese people pretending to be Japanese. But no worries: as Chen’s Casablanca boss, Master Liu (Anthony Wong), puts it, “The more trouble there is, the more money we’ll make.”



Chen navigates this duplicitous world seeking information for the rebellion and on the lookout for enemies. Of course, there has to be a femme fatale to make this picture complete, and Kiki (Shu Qi), one of the club’s showgirls, soon has Chen wrapped around her finger. Or is it the other way around?



Qi has shown her acting chops in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Millennium Mambo” (2000) and “Three Times” (2005). This time, she gets to have fun with a more traditional movie-star role, and she has no problem fitting the bill.



At the same time that things are heating up between Chen and Kiki, he has gotten started on a third identity and an additional career: he is now also the Masked Warrior, who runs around at night, in a Green Hornetesque costume, beating the crap out of any Japanese who get in his way. Please be forewarned: this film is seething with anti-Japanese sentiment, which may be understandable given the history involved.



Chen’s nemesis is Colonel Takeshi Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryu), leader of the Japanese forces in Shanghai and an incredible fighter himself. When the Japanese start to assassinate numerous anti-Japanese activists and intellectuals, the Masked Warrior and Chikaraishi essentially go to war. This is the Second Sino-Japanese War in miniature—and a great excuse for plenty of kicking and punching and blood spurting.



It is only natural that things lead up to a final faceoff between Chen and Chikaraishi—a contest which only one man can survive. Lau does not disappoint, saving his strongest filmmaking for his penultimate sequence. Just two guys and their fists: Lau knows that keeping it simple is most effective. Less is more.



Martial-arts fans are going to be pretty happy with “Legend of the Fist.” In the heat of combat, Chen sometimes lets out a uniquely intense yelp that is endearingly girlish, gleeful, and madly determined all at once. Watch out, the fanboys may be screaming the same thing. And even nonbelievers may find enough here for a good time, as long as they keep themselves supplied with popcorn. Although Lau could have trimmed five or ten minutes, when you compare “Legend of the Fist” to some of Hollywood’s recent summer epics of two-and-a-half hours and more, this director has perhaps set the standard for the kind of economical storytelling the big studios should revisit. As we head into the summer season, which seems to start earlier and earlier each year, “Legend of the Fist” is a good reminder of how to wed ample thrills and an actual plot. This is how it is done.






Chen Zen – Donnie Yen


Kiki – Shu Qi


Master Liu – Anthony Wong


Colonel Takeshi Chikaraishi – Kohata Ryu






A Well Go USA and Variance Films release.


Directed by Andrew Lau.


Written by Cheung Chi-Shing and Gordon Chan.


Produced by Andrew Lau and Gordon Chan.


Cinematography, Andrew Lau, Ng Man-ching.


Editing, Azrael Chung.


Original music, Chan Kwong-wing.



Running time: 106 minutes.