Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a continuation of sorts of the story of fictional hero Chen Zhen, a Chinese kung fu master. The character of Chen Zhen has been featured many times before, in both film and television.
Bruce Lee first potrayed him in the classic Fist of Fury (1972), the movie ending in an enigmatic freeze-frame, with the audience unsure of its hero’s survival. Jet Li also played him in Fist of Legend (1994). In Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, Donnie Yen picks up where his own 1995 television series Fist of Fury left off, once again reprising the role of martial arts and cultural hero Chen Zhen.
The movie, which opens in the U.S. April 22, is directed by Wai-keung Lau, released in Cantonese with English subtitles. It originally came out in Hong Kong in September 2010. Yen is not only the star, but also the film’s action choreographer. And the action sequences are pretty spectacular.
In the opening sequence, set in France during WWI, Chen Zhen, with just two bayonets, defeats a german tommygunner and attacking troops in a wonderful sequence. Unfortunately, the movie takes quite a while to recapture this opening energy, as a very convoluted plot unfolds, in choppy sequences, seemingly in direct opposition to the gracefully choreographed fight sequences.
Chen Zhen takes the name of one of his comrades who died in action, Qi Tianyuan, and turns up in Shanghai in 1925 at the Casablanca nightclub. Master Liu (Anthony Wong), the local mafioso, owns the nightclub and immediately takes a shine to Qi, making him the manager. Also interested in Qi is nightclub singer Kiki (Shu Qi). But are her interests romantic, or something else?
If the film had left the plot at that, it might have been better. But there are many other plot threads — the political unrest bewteen China and Japan leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War; General Zeng and General Zhuo, two rival Chinese warlords whose internal conflicts may lead to civil war; Qi’s other other identity, as a vigilante, ”the masked warrior” as he calls himself. This masked superhero is an homage to Bruce Lee’s Kato, a leather-clad masked chauffeur who kicks major butt and thwarts an assasination attempt on Zeng by presumably, the Japanese. There is also an assortment of resistance fighters and spies, adding to the confusion.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a good-looking film, especially in the the rain-soaked scenes featuring the bright lights of the Shanghai International Settlement nightclub district, which are reminiscent of Blade Runner.
As much as the movie tries to reference Casablanca — with its nightclub as the hub for action, full of international citizens, spies and Japanese soldiers — it is more reminiscent of a different Bogart movie, The Big Sleep, another stylish gangster film featuring two attractive leads and great photography, but also saddled with an unintelligible plot full of double- and triple-crosses and bodies falling left and right that neither concern nor involve the viewer.
Qi and Kiki begin a romance, but with all of the intercut Godfather-style killings on both sides and the endless China vs. Japan politics, the couple gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Plus, not content with all the aforementioned film references, the filmakers keep piling them on — there is more than one scene where ChenZhen/Kato/Qi channels The Dark Knight, as he overlooks the city, operating from the heights, the tops of buildings, and drives a cool car, seeking to avenge wrongs perpetrated against the citizenry.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen ends with a big confrontation at the Hongkou dojo, where Chen Zhen takes on the entire student body and bad guy Colonel Chikaraishi (another plot thread). It’s a great bookend to the opening action sequence. The opening and closing scenes, and those featuring the nightclub and its environs are filmed impeccably and are fun to watch. For fans of Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen’s martial arts prowess there is still much to enjoy, but it doesn’t make for a very coherent movie.