Judge Dan Mancini thinks this flick could use a bit of Willie Scott.
Our review of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition, published June 10th, 2011, is also available.
From the ashes of war a hero will rise.
Shanghai movie hero Chen Zhen first appeared on the silver screen played by Bruce Lee in 1972's Fist of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection). The movie is a by-the-books Hong Kong-made beat-em-up set in the Shanghai International Settlement at the turn of the last century. In it, Chen Zhen is a student of Jingwu martial arts who goes on a rampage of revenge when a dojo of interloping Japanese a-holes murders his master. Zhen returned to cinemas in 1994's Fist of Legend, this time played by Jet Li. The success of that movie led to a 30-episode television series in which Zhen was played by Donnie Yen. Now comes Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, a lush, big-screen adventure starring Donnie Yen (Ip Man) that acts as both a follow-up to the television series and a direct sequel of the Bruce Lee film.
After fighting in Europe in World War I, Chen Zhen faked his own death, assuming the name of one of his slain comrades, Qi Tianyuan. In 1925 Shanghai, Zhen is a partner in a swank nightclub called the Casablanca, which is frequented by a rogues' gallery of international powerbrokers jockeying for position in the insular colony. Among the creeps at the Casablanca is Japanese officer Colonel Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata, Godzilla: Final Wars), who hatches a scheme to create the illusion of violent conflict between Chinese generals Zeng and Zhuo in order to destabilize the region on behalf of his country's imperial aspirations. When Chen Zhen realizes what the Japanese are up to, he assumes the role of the Black Mask, a cinema superhero who looks suspiciously like the Green Hornet's sidekick, Kato (played by Bruce Lee in the short-lived 1960s American television series). Eventually, Chikaraishi begins to suspect that the Qi Tianyuan is not only the masked vigilante, but also the legendary and supposedly deceased Chen Zhen. It's only a matter of time before Zhen dons his iconic white suit and marches into the enemy dojo for a climactic throw-downed full of punches, kicks, swords, nunchaku, qi, and heaps of Chinese nationalism and profoundly anti-Japanese racism.
If Legend of the Fist's third act didn't devolve into a disappointingly conventional one-on-one fight between Zhen and Chikaraishi in which Donnie Yen's fervent homage to Bruce Lee crosses the line into unintentional comedy, it would be a visually striking and playfully adventurous martial arts movie. Most of the action throughout is crisp, well-staged, and bone-crunching. The movie's period setting, superhero overtones, and sly nods not only to the career of Bruce Lee but to American movies like Casablanca and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom make it a refreshing change of pace from the run-of-the-mill chopsocky. The movie's story is delightfully convoluted, full of equal parts acrobatic action and vicious double-crosses executed by a colorful cast of characters motivated solely by amoral self-interest. Unfortunately, the movie's third act collapses into the sort of rah-rah Chinese nationalism and unabashed xenophobia we've all come to expect from a Donnie Yen flick (is Yen capable of making a movie that isn't about him murdering Japanese with his bare fists?). It's a tragedy that Yen's career has been so marred by this treacly, one-dimensional patriotism because as action heroes go, he's one of the most acrobatic and entertaining currently in the business.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio in a transfer that is enhanced for widescreen displays, the movie looks great on DVD. The cinematography is opulent, offering smooth camera moves and rich lighting. Colors are bold and bright. Black levels are strong. Detail is excellent. The disc offers the original Mandarin audio as well as an English dub, each in both Dolby 5.1 and stereo mixes. The Mandarin surround offering is the default track, subtitled in English. It's loud, proud, and dynamic, reaching frequently into low frequencies and making great use of the rear soundstage. Lossy audio mixes don't get much better.
Disc One includes two brief featurettes. Battle Field (7:57) is a behind-the-scenes look at the World War I action set piece that opens the film, while Night Club (9:34) takes a look at the crew's work at the movie's central location, the Casablanca. To call these pieces featurettes is generous, considering they consist of raw video footage of the shoot and are not subtitled. They're slightly more interesting than watching a stranger's home movies.
There are also theatrical and international trailers archived on the first disc.
This Collector's Edition release of Legend of the Fist throws in a second disc of extras to complement the slim pickings on the first. The supplements are divided into Behind the Scenes and Interviews sections. The Behind the Scenes section contains six featurettes organized by the locations in the movie. Optional subtitles are available this time, but that only makes the pieces marginally more interesting than the material on the first disc. The Interviews section contains video interviews with seven members of the cast and crew.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is worthy of a rental but not a purchase by anyone other than hardcore Donnie Yen or Chen Zhen fans. If you do decide to buy the DVD, go for the single-disc edition. The hastily assembled extras on this Collector's Edition's second disc don't justify the extra coin.
Guilty of misdemeanor Act Three incompetence.
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