For those not up to speed, famous Chinese folk hero Chen Zhen has hit the big screen before, most famously in Bruce Lee's Fist Of Fury from 1972 but also in Fist Of Legend with Jet Li in 1994. Donnie Yen first played the role in a Chinese television series also called Fist Of Fury and this latest incarnation, also starring Yen in the role, basically picks up where that series left off.
When the film begins, we meet up with Chen as he and some other Chinese men are helping the Allied forces push back the Germans attempting to take France in the First World War. Chen's bravery is put front and center when he makes a daring attack on a German machine gun nest and saves the day. Cut to Shanghai where, a few years after the war, he spends a lot of time at a night club called Casablanca owned and operated by his friend Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong). The fact that a gorgeous chanteuse named Kiki (Shu Qi) is always there and showing an interest in him doesn't hurt matters either. Things are going well for Chen, but this all starts to change when the Japanese forces, lead by General Chikiraishi (Kohata Ryuichi), start flexing their muscle and taking advantage of the population.
When it turns out that the Japanese have come up with and started acting on a 'murder list' of Chinese citizens they'd like to get rid of, Chen Zhen dons a black mask and a black suit and hits the streets to show the occupying Japanese that the Chinese will not take their abuse lying down. While the Japanese are trying to figure out who is under the mask and how to stop him, Chen Zhen is trying to figure out who is helping the Japanese and trying to organize the Chinese resistance movement.
You've got to keep in mind that Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen was originally intended for a Chinese audience, so you'll have to forgive the fact that it is absolutely drenched with nationalist pride from start to finish. This is understandable enough, and the film makes some interesting points as it waves the flag (early on we see the Chinese fight for the Allies only to see the Europeans basically ignore them once the war is over and the Japanese move in), but subtle is not exactly an appropriate way of describing the film - this picture is about as subtle as a kick in the groin. That said, subtlety probably wasn't high on the list of director Andrew Lau's agenda nor, for that matter, was realism. While there's plenty of attention to detail paid here to the lavish sets and impressive costumes used throughout the film, the fight scenes (choreographed by Yen) aren't all that grounded in reality even if they are ridiculously entertaining.
While on a visual level Legend Of The Fist is quite an accomplishment, the story is hard to connect to. The characters don't develop all that much and subplots, the most notable being a romance which blossoms between Chen Zhen and Kiki, tend to appear and disappear without much rhyme or reason. At one point an important character is captured, beaten and left incarcerated, and in the next scene he's resting safely in bed having escaped or been rescued somehow. There are some sizeable plot holes here, and there are pacing issues as well. The film is about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be and there are some lengthy stretches where those hoping for non-stop martial arts mayhem will be left unimpressed - until the next action scene kicks in, at which point the movie will spring back to life again.
Maybe it's too easy to ask too much of the film. When you think about it, this is a movie where Donnie Yen dons a black patent leather suit and mask and zips around town evading bullets and kicking Japanese guys through newspaper offices, and where our star does his best Bruce Lee impersonation in the big finale. This is a movie where Anthony Wong plays a noble guy, a movie where the Japanese are pure evil and a movie where cars made in the fifties appear in its 1920s setting. While it's almost a certainty that Chinese audiences will get more out of the story than western audiences, it's hard to see Legend Of The Fist as much more than a fun, if erratically paced, popcorn movie and on that level it succeeds just fine.
Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen arrives on DVD in an anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer that, aside from some fairly noticeable compression artifacts, generally looks pretty good. The source material used for the transfer was in great shape so there are no issues with print damage to complain about, and color reproduction looks nice and bold, despite some scenes which have an intentional sepia tone tint to them. Detail is good for standard definition, and although this DVD release obviously doesn't reach the same levels that the Blu-ray disc does it offers a pretty pleasing image.
Also strong is the Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. With that said, the film was shot in Cantonese, not Mandarin, so both tracks are dubbed - this'll probably annoy some more than others, but there are definitely spots where the dubbing is obvious - this was the same one the Blu-ray release as well and it's a puzzling choice on the part of Well-Go USA. Regardless, the 5.1 mix sounds very good with plenty of surround usage and directional effects to enjoy and which help to bring the action scenes to life. Bass is strong, the levels are well balanced and the mix is very clean and crisp sounding. An optional English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is also included as are removable subtitles English. Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks are also provided in English and Mandarin.
Extras are slim on the first disc, limited to previews for a few other Well Go USA releases, an eight minute segment that shows how the opening war zone segment was shot entitled Behind The Scenes: Warzone which will appease stunt junkies, a ten minute bit called Behind The Scenes: Casablanca that shows how the night club scenes were put together, two theatrical trailers, animated menus and chapter stops.
The limited edition two-disc release of the movie also contains a second disc with some more extras starting off with a collection of six Behind The Scenes documentaries totaling roughly half an hour all together. Here we get a look at how the Tianjan Street sets were constructed, how the Market Place set was constructed, how the Newspaper Office was constructed, how the Japanese army's headquarters were built, how the whole student protest scene was choreographed, and of course the big finish in the dojo. There are some interesting shots of Yen working both as actor and as fight choreographer here and some of the stunt work footage is pretty impressive.
Also included on the DVD is a collection of interviews with the cast and crew. Here you'll get a chance to sit down with director Andrew Lau (16:27), producer Gordon Chan (1:43), stars Donnie Yen (9:23), the gorgeous Shu Qi (9:44), the always entertaining Anthony Wong (2:58), Huang Bo (5:16) and Kohata Ryuichi (3:58). Each of the performers discusses their character and their experiences on the film, with Lau understandably having the most to say about the project and expressing his appreciation for all the work that Yen and the others helped out with.
Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen isn't a classic but it is entertaining enough and periodically enthralling even if it never quite grabs you the way it should. Yen's fight choreography and martial arts skills are in fine form here and there are definitely a few set pieces you won't soon forget, but the film's emotional core never quite takes off. That said, if you're a Donnie Yen fan or someone who enjoys over the top action films, this is still very much worth a look and Well Go USA's DVD release is a great way to check out the film despite the Mandarin audio flub. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.