This Friday sees the release of "Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen." For the uninitiated, Chen Zhen is kind of a big deal in Hong Kong, so the subtitle is meant to refer to the character as played by Donnie Yen (here reprising his role) in a hit television series. The series borrows both from historical myth and a previous Bruce Lee film, so there's the slight assumption that you don't exactly need elaboration regarding Zhen's identity. Essentially, imagine if you had never heard of Indiana Jones but were now watching, "Young Indiana Jones: The Movie." We forgive your confusion.
Fortunately, this period actioner dispenses with such details early on with a few informative title cards and a brisk action sequence. Director Andrew Lau (one half of the directing team behind "Infernal Affairs") gambles that Donnie Yen's fists can do a lot more to illustrate who Chen Zhen really is than the martial artist's limited range, so he begins in the middle of a 1917 warzone, where Zhen establishes his credentials with a ludicrous burst of energy, nearly taking flight against French soldiers, dismantling them with sweeping kicks, attack-by-rope-swings and a superhero's precision.
Yen's athleticism shines in these brief moments, but it's Lau's direction that keeps his improbably successful attack both astounding and oddly believable. When Zhen takes to a series of rooftops before diving towards an assailant with a dagger between his teeth, it puts to shame any recent domestic attempts at a credibly eye-popping action sequence. We know this character can't fly (and we assume Yen can't in real life, though taken as a whole his filmography arouses suspicion), but being our introduction to this character, we immediately believe his feats.
This sequence almost cripples the narrative, however, as we cut ahead to 1925. With Zhen's badass credentials established to the audience, we find him hiding out under a new identity in Shanghai. Tensions between the Chinese and their Japanese aggressors have been tempered as Zhen has watched his own people coalesce to the desires of their rulers in the wake of ugly Sino-Japanese conflicts. Zhen, now undercover, begins to explore a world of double-crosses and questionable alliances, discovering a massive assassination plot that will cripple attempts at Chinese unification. It soon becomes clear that he has no other recourse: time to become a masked superhero.
But the film never really expands on Zhen's decision to adopt a mask. The idea of a man going undercover as a spy, and then creating a third identity to fight injustice, certainly has promise. But Lau's film gets bogged down in its own artifice, getting swept up in the empty spectacle of the 1925 Hong Kong erected/created seemingly for the purpose of elaborate stunt work. A moment where Zhen's masked warrior takes the fight to a number of skilled goons in grisly detail (the man takes his nationalism seriously) is followed by one of several endless moments spent amidst the cigar smoke of casino backrooms, where Japanese villains twirl their mustaches and plot Chinese dominance. The high drama of a political coup is taken too seriously, clashing with the humorless genre theatrics, as if this were two films consistently colliding, one breathless and exciting, the other mundane and leaden. To counter this, the fight sequences, choreographed by Yen himself, consistently and aggressively defy the laws of physics. But most of the fights are punctuated by severely ugly death sequences, as Zhen leaves a notable pile of bodies in his wake.
This escapist/violent dichotomy wouldn't be bothersome if we ever got to understand Zhen, but Yen, one of the most accomplished on-screen martial artists, has limited skill as an actor. His face lacks the natural expression necessary to bring the audience in, and in films like the recent "Ip Man" movies his character was defined by his seriousness and loyalty. He was a teacher in those pictures, however, and in "Legend of the Fist," Yen is all vengeance, though beyond political allegiance, we have no idea if this battle is personal or not. And it's a pity about the man's smile: Yen is not a bad looking gentleman, but when Zhen begins an impromptu flirtation, his hesitant smile suggests, "I am politely acknowledging you."
There's a thrilling film to be made from "Legend of the Fist," particularly with Yen in the lead. In combat, Yen is a marvel, moving so fast it feels as if his combatants are moving in slow motion. It's only when he slows down that the film follows suit, becoming a bloated big budget spectacle that's constantly waiting for it's single special effect to uncork a kick or two. [C+]