Well Go Usa // 2010 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // June 10th, 2011
Yet another painfully nationalist Chinese martial arts flick from Donnie Yen.
Those stepping into the role of Chen Zen have some pretty big shoes to fill. Though he may be a fictional character he's also a character that's been played by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li at the top of their game. Lee's Fist of Fury is a hard-hitting martial arts flick that's effectiveness is as much about its barebones approach to the genre as it is about Lee's rage fueled turn as Chen Zen. Similarly, Jet Li's Fist of Legend, a remake of Lee's film, is arguably his best, most visceral film (though Once Upon a Time in China fights tooth and nail for that honor). Donnie Yen (Ip Man) himself had a turn as Chen Zen in a mid-90s TV show surprisingly called Fist of Fury. The show itself was barely above mediocre, combining more elements of melodrama and painfully bad stylistics than actual thrills. And now Yen is back in a loose sequel to this Chen Zen mythos called Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen. The problem is that it's not very good even as basic martial arts entertainment. What a shame.
Part laborer and part soldier, the film starts with an explosive scene on the frontlines of France during World War II as we watch Chen Zen trying to keep his unit from falling to pieces through insane acts of war heroism that defy all laws of reality. Jumping ahead to the 1920s, we find Chen Zen laying low from occupying Japanese forces, in a lavish jazz club in Shanghai called The Casablanca, under an assumed name. As the Japanese forces gear up for an invasion of China by killing off important Chinese resistance figures, Chen Zen must once again stand up for the oppressed and give those Japanese what for.
I had decently high expectations going into this film. I wasn't so much expecting some sort of genre solidifying martial arts picture that makes you stand up and take notice, but I was expecting a highly polished genre picture with visceral fight scenes. Was I really wrong in wanting these things? Not only has Chen Zen's legacy been firmly established by two masters of the genre, but this film is directed by Andrew Lau, the man behind the Infernal Affairs trilogy. These are the films that interested William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) enough to pilfer from them for his script for Scorsese's The Departed. While that film may be a well executed, if bloated, crime epic that is ever so slightly ruined by its director's ever-looming ego, Infernal Affairs and its subsequent sequels were thrilling examples of Hong Kong crime/action cinema at its finest and most basic. So you've got a director with a reputation for delivering the same kind of experience that both Bruce Lee and Jet Li gave us with their Chen Zen films and you have a sturdy, if emotionally hollow and uncharismatic, lead in Donnie Yen.
2#What you end up with is a maddeningly uninspired and marginally explosive martial arts flick that has more of a limp wrist than a clenched fist. I don't expect originality in this genre because it's more defined and immersed within its conventions than any other one. All I expect from martial art flicks is that they use these conventions well and revel in doing so. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen doesn't use any of them well, instead choosing to turn a blind eye to its own generic nature in the chase to emulate Hollywood to a ridiculous degree. While this genre has and will always be one dominated by cheap character archetypes, narrative structures and plot developments; this film follows all of these to such a maddening degree without so much as a wink to the audience to let us know that everyone involved is knowingly doing so. There's Chen Zen himself who has been perverted into some sort of representation of Chinese national identity and perseverance who can single-handedly defeat the caricature-like Japanese army. Sure it's a stock convention in the genre, but usually you're led to actually feel like the hero can be a leader of men and strong willed enough to inspire loyalty among the people; strong folk figures if you will. This is not the case here though. You also have the dim-witted, if well meaning, police chief. There's the mongrel seeming white Westerners with their constant racial slurs and corruption to remind us all how horrible the white man has been in the global scope of human history.
I can normally suspend my critical mind when it comes to these character archetypes and the cliché plots they always accompany as long as the fight scenes and the inherent rage are top notch. Again, this is another area of contention within this film. There are moments of purely thrilling kung fu action where you sit up and take notice of the highly stylized but down to earth choreography. There's even a few seconds here and there where the film starts to recall some of the great moments of both Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend. But these moments are few and far between. Instead this film chooses to inject slight moments of over-the-top wirework with ridiculously uninspired choreography. The pitfall of these two choices in style and direction are only further amplified by strange camera movements and an editing style that chooses to synthesize the Western feel of it all more so than the hard hitting nature of the material.
I'm not quite sure how much of this should be blamed on Andrew Lau and how much of it should be put on Yen's shoulders as the "Action Director." As we all know, the ego of any great martial arts star gets to a certain size where they start directing or choreographing their own action scenes if not entire movies. Sometimes this works out great, like Jackie Chan's fight scenes in The Legend of Drunken Master or the totality of Bruce Lee's The Way of the Dragon. Sometimes this sense of ego is just too much, like Tony Jaa's attempts at directing in both Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3. Regardless, even the non-action sequences are quite lame with nothing but crane and dolly shots used to try and create some sense of epicness instead of attempting to cultivate these emotions or sensations organically through the fight scenes and narrative arcs.
I'd be remise to not mention the laughably moronic decision by Donnie Yen to imitate Bruce Lee in the final fight scene, where a pair of nunchucks and Yen's attempt at copying Lee's famous shrieks and growls ruin any goodwill he may have cultivated anywhere else in the film. No one can match Lee's screen presence or the aura surrounding him, it's best not to even attempt doing so but instead to strike out and find your own footing. Jet Li did it well enough but Yen doesn't seem to have gotten that note. Also as a quick side note...someone please take away the fake tanner or bronzer from Yen because it's hard to buy into his image when he closely resembles something that should be stirring Willy Wonka's chocolate instead of kicking some ass.
While I'm not the biggest Yen fan out there, believing that he has little charisma, charm, or effectiveness as a leading man on screen compared to the greats, I still can get behind him especially after watching Ip Man and Kill Zone. The problem here is that this film gives him nothing to do that hasn't already been done a thousand times better with this specific character of Chen Zen but also within the genre as a whole. Partly this is because the film uses elements of the masked vigilante/superhero genre only to forget them minutes later and for the rest of the film. Yen's lack of effectiveness is also partly a result of a script that gives us a character with no real sense of true motivation or emotion. Ultimately, Yen tries his best with the source material but he just doesn't have the chops to sell it the way it needs to be sold.
Qi Shu (Millennium Mambo) and Anthony Wong (Exiled are both two bright spots however. Shu is equal parts enigmatically beautiful and captivating in her role as Chen Zen's slight love interest. Her role could have a lot more depth and motivation behind it but the character is sold short once her role has been played. It's a shame because I never get tired of watching Shu on screen.
Similarly, Wong is given a great character in the owner of the swinging Shanghai club Casablanca. He's this towering and mysterious figure throughout, but we never know his backstory or motivations. Yet again his purpose in the plot is never taken to the level that it needs to go. Bo Huang (Cow) also merits mention for taking such a generic and clichéd role like the inept but well-meaning police chief and giving it a good sense of comic relief and levity while also showing some true moments of emotional turmoil to get the audience invested in the character.
The 1080p transfer on this Blu-ray is mostly good though erratic. The opening war scenes have a shockingly gritty and washed out color palette that is captured beautifully for this release. You can see the dust and the grime with great clarity. Yet as the story shifts to the bright lights of Shanghai things become a bit muddled. The colors are unnaturally saturated, though vibrant and skin tones are maddeningly uneven with Donnie Yen himself looking sickly orange. Though I think half of it is his fake tan and the other half the actual transfer. But on the whole it's a very serviceable transfer with more than a handful of moments that truly show off the capabilities of the Blu-ray format.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master track incredible however. It's a great mix that enhances the impact of the fight scenes. You have to hear it to be won over but no one sound dominates the soundscape over another. The hustle and bustle of Shanghai, the swinging jazz of The Casablanca, the pounding rain and the knuckle bruising fight scenes all blend together to form a seamless wall of sound.
The special features themselves are pretty average though, with a handful of trailers for other Well Go USA releases, and a collection of pedestrian cast and crew interviews along with your run-of-the-mill Behind the Scenes featurettes. Though a few of these featurettes are interesting, especially information on how the opening scene was constructed and shot.
Maybe I'm being too hard on this film, especially wanting it to live up to movies by the greats like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan. I'm sure that there are many out there who will find this to be an enjoyable and mindless action movie to watch as an escape from reality for a few hours. But to me, it's just so average and so clichéd when it has a premise and a man behind the camera that could achieve so much more. The fact that the ending is so completely rushed and patched together speaks to the haphazard nature of this film's production. But if you're a Donnie Yen fan, you probably wont have any complaints. You can't really expect much more out of him even though he's billed as the pre-eminent Hong Kong superstar. I just don't see it at all.
Part kung fu movie, part superhero, but all mediocre in the worst possible ways.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go Usa
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R