I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

tn_legendofthefistLEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is the latest in Hong Kong’s prestigious line of FIST movies. If you’re not familiar with the saga it’s very simple: Chen Zhen is a vengeful kung fu master who was played by Bruce Lee in FIST OF FURY (1976), Jet Li in FIST OF LEGEND (1994), Donnie Yen in the FIST OF LEGEND tv series (1995), and Donnie Yen again in this movie based on his tv series adapted from Bruce Lee’s movie because of the popularity of Jet Li’s movie. The fictional Chen Zhen is supposed to be a student of the historical Huo Yuanjia, who was played by Jet Li in FEARLESS (2006). So keep in mind while watching that movie that Jet Li is playing teacher to himself and Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen, who of course played teacher to Bruce Lee in IP MAN 1-2. The Bruce Lee movie FISTS OF FURY is not related to these movies, that’s just another name for THE BIG BOSS. The Chen Zhen movies are only singular FIST and not plural FISTS. Also Chen Zhen is not related to the historical figure from the Han Dynasty, he is instead portrayed as living in the Republican era  before the Second Sino-Japanese War although Huo Yuanjia lived during the late Qing Dynasty. So you see there is nothing to be confused about here.

mp_legendofthefistAlthough I’ve never seen the tv series I was pretty excited for LEGEND OF THE FIST. Donnie Yen is on a real roll right now after the IP MAN movies, this is from Andrew Lau (co-director of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy) and it’s a character from two of the all time classic martial arts pictures. But, uh… oh well. I’m sure other movies will come out that I can look forward to.

The movie begins in France in 1917. Chen Zhen is a soldier in the middle of a tense battle. He has some kind of amulet which the other soldiers credit with saving their lives. (I don’t get it.) For a minute it’s like a normal war movie: trenches, helmets, guns, bombs. But then things get desperate so Chen Zhen decides fuck it, I am a martial arts legend, I’m gonna run around and do a bunch of flips and parkour and kung fu the shit out of a whole bunch of French soldiers. The action (choreographed by Yen himself) is really cool, but almost comical in how exaggerated it is. He swings on a rope in a Peter Pan pose with a dagger between his teeth, he runs in circles leaning over so far his body could almost scrape the ground, it looks like a cartoon. Even I, an avowed fan of absurdity, thought at some point it was gonna turn out to be a comical fantasy or daydream type sequence. Nope. Just a war flashback.

Then it skips ahead to 1925 Shanghai, for more of that Chinese-Japanese tension that was such a big part of FIST OF FURY. When that was remade as FIST OF LEGEND they made an effort to tone it down, to be more nuanced, explore the reasons for the tension and show good and bad on both sides. For example there is a classic scene where Chen Zhen and an old Japanese master learn from each other and gain each other’s respect through a duel. But nationalism is back in vogue in Chinese movies these days, so LEGEND OF THE FIST tones it back up a little.

The Bruce Lee version of the story ends with Chen Zhen defiantly running toward a firing squad, in the Jet Li version he’s allowed to fake his death and escape. In this one he’s presumed dead so I figure either it follows FIST OF LEGEND or he used that magic amulet from the war to be bullet proof. Either way he comes back wearing a fake mustache and the identity of one of his dead war buddies. He hangs out at a night club called Casablanca and impresses the owner Master Liu (Anthony Wong) so he ends up working for him. They seem like real homies, but Chen is doing this as part of an undercover mission for the Chinese resistance. He also falls for the club’s singer Kiki (who’s Master Liu’s girlfriend, but he says it’s okay).

Alot of Japanese dignitaries hang out at the Casablanca and cause alot of squabbles that I feel confident I don’t fully understand (something about a spinning a coin). Chen finds out about an assassination attempt that will hurt the goal of Chinese unification and help the Japanese to invade, and soon after that there’s a whole enemies list of Chinese people they plan to execute. It just so happens that the local movie theater is showing a super hero movie called THE MASKED WARRIOR, so Chen conveniently steals a Kato or Black Mask style costume from a window display to anonymously defend the people in danger.

To me it seemed like a reasonable idea to go that pulpy. It is after all the LEGEND of the fist, not THE HEAVILY RESEARCHED HISTORICAL ACCOUNT of the fist. But the way it’s handled is pretty lazy. There’s just a montage that shows little bits of fights and then spinning headlines about “The Masked Warrior”‘s success. There really wasn’t a strong reason to turn him into a costumed super hero, and they barely do anything with it. And I can always roll with a Kato mask but I did find it pretty laughable whenever he stood posing on top of a building like the end of the old Michael Keaton BATMAN movie.

It’s half-assed as a super hero movie, and only about 3/4 assed as a spy movie. But there is some intrigue and double-crosses and what not. Chen ends up abducted, strung up and tortured. It turns out the Japanese general who hates Chen is the son of the karate master he killed in the dojo in the original story, so he’s out for revenge, and they’re gonna fight and what not. (Remember, the first story was about his furious revenge for the death of his master, now this guy is avenging the death of his master/father, so it’s a taste of his own medicine).  When he finds out what’s going on Donnie Yen as Chen Zhen gets to repeat Bruce Lee’s “Chinese are not sick men of Asia line,” which I still don’t understand no matter how it gets translated.

(And no, I’m not saying Chinese are sick men of Asia. I honestly don’t have any opinions about who is or is not sick men of Asia.)

The nationalism and stubbornness in the original bothers me, but the movie is so undeniably great that you still gotta enjoy it. This is a much weaker story, so it’s harder to forgive. One scene in particular is goofy because they have some college protesters chanting “Remember our national humiliation!” in protest of what the news reports as 30,000 killed or wounded. 30,000 victims and you guys are upset because it was embarrassing? I know it’s a cultural thing, but jesus.

I get a kick out of the fake mustache. I guess it’s kind of an homage to FIST OF FURY because that Chen Zhen had some disguises too, he dressed up as an old man for example. But alot of time passes during this legend, so I had to wonder how he manages to have close relationships with all these people over a long period of time and none of them ever notice he’s wearing a fake mustache. I was thinking maybe at some point he grew it for real, but then I realized he never has it when he’s the Masked Warrior. So you gotta give him credit for pulling that off, I guess. Musta gone through alot of spirit gum.

There’s a little bit of the competition between dojos from the old school kung fu movies, so the bad guy says “Feel free to stop by Hongkou Dojo” and Chen says, “I’ll do that sometime.” I liked that.

The editing is very quick, but not usually in a bad way. The story keeps moving at a clip, and if I spoke the language instead of having to read the subtitles I could probly keep up fine. Still, it just goes through the motions, it doesn’t have any depth to anything, so it’s not nearly as exciting as a kung fu, super hero or war resistance movie should be. Also it has too many eye-rolling cliche scenes, like the one where the inspector makes a rousing speech to inspire the jailed protesters and the French occupiers immediately give in.

The good part is the action. There’s alot of cool moves and it’s pretty violent. That was good. I liked the fights, but the two classic FIST movies (not to mention Yen’s two recent IP MAN movies) have characters and stories you care about, and fights that are tied into the story and characterization. LEGEND OF THE FIST can’t compare to any of them, not even close.

Oh well. It’ll make for an interesting Scorsese remake.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 at 10:44 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen”

  1. I enjoyed the opening scene, it felt pretty exciting, but the rest of the movie left me somewhat bored and disappointed. When compared to the other movies mentioned, it doesn’t even enter the race.

  2. A interesting Scorsese remake? THE DEPARTED is a terrible remake of INFERNAL AFFAIRS. The original is superior in really every way: story, characters, heart, depth and filmatism. With the changes to the ending of INFERNAL AFFAIRS the remake also completely missed the point! I’m stunned about all the love this movie get’s.

  3. This is definitely a weak film in a number of ways, but I guess I enjoyed it more than most others did. The fights were solid and I liked the period atmosphere.

    Since Vern is on a bit of an Asian action movie roll right now, perhaps we will see a review for Takeshi Kitano’s criminally underrated return to the Yakuza genre, ‘Outrage’? Kitano has been deemed a badass laureate here, after all.

  4. Andreas – while I don’t think “The Departed” is a bad movie by any means, I’m glad somebody else “gets it”! It didn’t do anything for me either.

    Vern, you’re really working overtime right now, what with reviews, comments and all. Which is great, unfortunately I can’t see ’em fast enough to comment on ’em. :(

  5. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    March 17th, 2011 at 3:10 am

    But Infernal Affairs wasn’t set in Boston and everyone wasn’t calling each other a cocksucker.

  6. I think I would have been okay with this movie if it had at least ended on a really awesome fight. Instead, they just have Yen get beat up without resisting for a while and then the Japanese guy gets beat up without resisting for a while.

    Not particularly exciting.

  7. billydeethrilliams

    March 17th, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Fist movies? Oh… never mind.

  8. billydeethrilliams; You should check out Legendary Fisting with Jet Li. Or was it Fist of Legend? I can’t remember.

  9. Ace Mac, you have to select English Audio 3 on the INFERNAL AFFAIRS DVD for your THE DEPARTED/DEADWOOD style dialogue fix.  Those Hong Kongian dubbers have filthy mouths.  

    This FIST movie is an adequate member of the time-honored corps of “movies in which you should fast forward to the fights unless you want to be frustrated & disappointed or unless a Chinese nationalist party member is monitoring your patriotism while you watch.”  Donnie Yen’s got several of those, and I’m ok with that.  

  10. Vern: “the sick man of Asia” epithet has to do with China’s weakened state about 1850-1950. They called the Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe around the same time, for the same reason. The phrase has been used to describe the Philippines: after WWII, the Philippines had the most powerful economy in Asia, but Marcos ruined all of that. What country had the second largest film output in the 1950s after Hollywood? Answer: the Philippines.

    Lately people have been using the phrase “sick man of Asia” to describe Japan’s anemic economy, but after the tsunami, I think Japan went from sick to critical condition :-(

  11. I wonder what word has been used in martial arts movie titles more: Dragon, Fist or Legend? Surprisingly, there’s no movie called LEGEND OF THE DRAGON FIST, just a flash game with that title.

  12. Frankie Teardrop

    March 17th, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Yeah, Scorsese should do a Zorro-styled remake set during the Mexican revolution with Leonardo Di Caprio as a masked swordfighter and Rosario Dawson as the singer in a mariachi band, but she’s really the resistance leader and together they fight to overthrow the evil armed forces led by Billy Zane and Mark Wahlberg (wearing a prosthetic chin).

  13. Frankie Teardrop:

    “Rosario Dawson as the singer in a mariachi band, but she’s really the resistance leader”

    You’ve been watching “The Rundown” too much.

    Besides, if they threw the Rock, Vin Diesel, and Danny Trejo in that mix, I’d definitely see that movie. But of course, at that point it would be directed by Robert Rodriguez

  14. Jareth Cutestory

    March 17th, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Frankie Teardrop:

    Glad you could find some time away from your job at the factory to post on this forum.

    I hear those 7:00 to 5:00 shifts are brutal.

  15. Sometimes I like to rank action stars based on how I think I would fare in a fair fight with them.  I think I could take JCVD, for example, b/c his slow, heavily edited fights make me think he’s almost never taken a hit.  But then in UNISOL:REGEN he was scary violent.  Dolph has always intimidated me; he’s a cross between a gorilla & a Terminator.  I wouldn’t mess with Michael Jai White because I’d hate to scar or cripple Vern’s favorite muscleman.  Arnold, even in his prime, I could strategically leg kick him until he slows down and bends once to give me a shot at his neck.  Or he might rip a hand dryer out the wall and pummel my cheekbones with it like in TRUE LIES.  But then I’d consider that an unfair use of Mr. Olympia biceps, so I’d kick him in his manhood to make it even again.  

    Anyway, I used to think that, among the male Chinese & other Asian martial arts stars, Donnie Yen was the most defeatable, but after seeing his technique in FLASHPOINT, I am willing to admit that he could potentially crush me.  Jackie Chan remains the best & most feared fantasy opponent to me.  He’s the ruggedest, the most skilled, and the most improvisationally proficient.

    What I am saying here is that Belgium, China, & MJW are pussies until they prove otherwise in a tournament.  Sweden can referee please don’t hurt me Dolph.  

  16. Mouth: I’m assuming you missed the announcement that JCVD is remaking kickboxer for real by getting into the ring with some young turk who is likely to kick the fucking Flemish out of him. Somebody posted the link on the Potpourri 2: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold. Check it out. He cries.

  17. Shit, this should’ve been Yen’s ultimate Bruce tribute – a homage to all things Lee in one fell swoop – what could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

    The opening and closing bits of action were fine, if too brief, and instead what we got for the majority of the films running time was a nice looking dullathon (I kept getting the feeling Yen was trying to out-do INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, for some reason).

    This “Churn ’em out” approach isn’t working for Yen. He’s still every bit as good a screen fighter as he ever was but this prolific output is backfiring .

    I enjoyed DRAGON TIGER GATE and FLASHPOINT, but for me everything else has been a let down. Here’s hoping his two (!) new flicks (one with Jimmy Wang Yu!) are an improvement.

    And Yen’s 90s TV show is similarly dreadful, the fight scenes sped up so ridiculously you half expect to hear the Benny Hill theme tune accompanying them.

  18. That opening sequence was really cool, especially the work with the dagger, but the end sequence felt too much like a retread of scenes from Fist of Legend – and second rate ones at that. The best fight in the film is when Chen Zhen tries to rescue his friend from the Japanese in an office building.

    I’m not a big fan of “wire fu” but 14 Blades is really good and worth checking out. Donnie Yen makes carrying a wooden box spring-loaded with blades for every occasion actually look natural.

  19. I liked this movie. It was chock full of cliches but it was enjoyably well done. The one thing that was original that I had not seen before was the opening scene. Typical war movie epic scene… until Donnie Yen decides to take matters in his own hands. I had to laugh out loud at the balls they had to just throw matial arts into a modern-era war movie scene. Hadn’t seen anything like that before. Another thing that I noted was how brutal this movie is. It’s not nuanced, that’s for sure. And the brutality is a notch higher than I expected going into it, especially in the final fight scene.

  20. In The Line of Duty IV is my favorite Donnie Yen film. Incredibly dynamic, brutal, non-wire fights, directed by Yuen Woo Ping. Seek it out, it’s well worth it.

  21. Larry, how old is that line of duty movie?

  22. I will eventually check this one out, but after watching the Ip Man movies I am sick of Chinese nationalism in my marital arts films. I am seriously worried about the state of Chinese action cinema. Ever since Hong Kong has become part of main land China Hong Kong action cinema has been on the decline, and main land China has gradually taken over the industry. With main land China running the show we are seeing less films released, and their focus is on releasing big budget Hollywood style epics laced with Chinese nationalism rather then the action packed and violent crime and kung fu capers we have come to expect from HK.

  23. Equally disturbing to me, and this is on the same page as this forced nationalist nonsense, is Chinese filmatists’ apparent love for the 5th Commandment. Too many movies have a tacked on part at the end where a kid breaks down and is like “Oh I should have listened to my parents & grandparents they were right I was wrong and they are always right.”

    Yep, those godless Reds *love* them some Old Testament.

  24. Mouth, you make a good point. I think that is just a cultural thing in general because I have had friends that were from an immigrant very traditional Chinese family and the idea of respecting your elders is very much part of their culture.

  25. A bit like how Jet Li and Jackie Chan have both played Wong Fei Hung. Too bad all American revenger films aren’t about a character called Paul Kersey.

  26. The above mention of Donnie Yen’s FIST OF FURY reminded me of the excessively low budget qualities of many pre-2005ish Chinese martial arts movies, and this combined with the discussion of the confusing repetition of certain key words to remind me of the time I ended up with THE TAI CHI MASTER instead of TAI CHI MASTER in a hilarious DVD rental mix-up.

    But I revisited THE TAI CHI MASTER, which features Yuen Woo Ping as one of the 4 directors. 4 directors you say? Sounds odd, but it was a TV series first. Which sort of explains why it looks like it was filmed with some surplus late-80s GENERAL HOSPITAL cameras and zero lighting budget. Still. . . holy shite! There’s a fight or a practice fight every 90 seconds in this thing! It’s glorious. You can see the best of the premiere fight choreographer of our lifetime, too, especially in a part where 2 dudes fight in a walled off area with a rope netting about 20 feet above them and dozens of swords hanging upside down on ropes dangling the netting. Yeah, they get a lot of good mileage out of that setup. Obviously, it’ll remind you of the climax of IRON MONKEY.

    Also, there’s a section of THE TAI CHI MASTER where the main guy, who by the way has this awesome commitment to respectfully calling everyone he fights “Senior” or “Lord” since he’s technically just a student, has to fight a different opponent on each of 7 floors of a special building. Normally, this GAME OF DEATH stuff is the climax or centerpiece of a movie, but here it’s just something that happens during the middle of the narrative, and then there’s a shit ton more fighting. Fucking awesome.

    I gotta catch up on some Jacky Wu.

    Also I’ve discovered the female Steven Seagal. Amy Fan / Yik Man Fan. She toys with like 6 dudes one by one and then seizes their forearm or fingers, cracks a joke, and proceeds to break their skeleton. And she is HAWT!

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