Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Well Go)
Ostensibly a sequel to the 1972 martial arts classic Fist of Fury, with the talented but far less furious Donnie Yen in the role created by Bruce Lee (and recreated by Jet Li in the 1994 remake Fist of Legend), Legend of the Fist is a colorful and largely incoherent mess, less a movie than a collection of cannibalized ideas stitched together into something resembling a plot.
Set largely in the decadent splendor of 1925 Shanghai, where gangsters made money off the chaos as Japan and Britain made their plays for control of China, it opens with a World War I prologue on the French front lines, takes a turn into Chinese a Casablanca reworked a quasi-musical costume spectacle, and then transforms into a resistance thriller. Yen shucks off the grace and restraint of his Ip Man films to play Chen Zhen as an intent patriot posing as a sleek lounge lizard, his cover as he infiltrates the club, and then take on yet another identity to protect Chinese patriots from Japanese assassins: a costumed superhero that recalls Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet. Shu Qui wobbles through it all as a nightclub chanteuse playing drunk in every other scene and Anthony Wong maintains a level of modest dignity as the Triad nightclub owner, the film’s answer to Rick Blaine, providing neutral territory for enemies to rub elbows while a nationalist mob war builds in the streets.
For those who missed the first film, Ip Man (played by Hong Kong martial arts maestro Donnie Yen) is the real-life martial Chinese arts teacher and proponent of Wing Chun style who was a hero during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria but is more famous to the western world for mentoring the young Bruce Lee. Which is not to say that this film is docudrama or in any way biographically accurate. Set after the war, with Ip Man relocated to Hong Kong, it replaces the foreign devils that were the occupying Japanese Army with the colonial British foreign devils ruling Hong Kong in 1950 and sets the honorable sensei against a corrupt cabal of martial arts teachers lead by Sammo Hung (who is also the film’s fight choreographer) and a champion boxer called The Twister (Darren Shahlavi), a British brute with a powerful punch and a killer instinct. Master Ip doesn’t believe in grudge matches, but he will fight for national pride and honor in the inevitable East vs. West showdown.
It’s all quite predictable and conventional but for the fight scenes, which Hong Kong great Sammo Hung designs with the energy and invention that recalls the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema, from a street brawl that sets Master Ip against hordes of hoods to a one-on-one between Yen and Hung set on a round tabletop that spins and splits and splinters under their leaps and blows. This meeting of masters alone makes the film worth a look to any fan of martial arts cinema. Simon Yam has a brief appearance reprising his character from the first film, this time as a damaged casualty scraping by on the streets.
The DVD and Blu-ray are both released on single disc and two-disc sets, that latter with the usual making of featurette and deleted scenes, plus a short featurette on the film’s set design and locations and a brief “Shooting Diary,” all in Cantonese with English subtitles. The bulk of the second disc, however, is a collection of interviews with director Wilson Yip (the longest at almost 20 minutes) and most of the significant members of the cast, including Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Lynn Hung, Simon Yam, Louis Fan, Kent Cheng and Darren Shahlavi, to name just a few. The film is presented with the option of Cantonese, Mandarin or English dub soundtracks with optional English subtitles.
I’ve been traveling as of late (including a weekend jaunt to San Francisco for the Silent Film Festival at the Castro; my coverage will be rolling out over the next few weeks) so I’ve had less time for DVD coverage, both watching and writing. Still, I’ll call out what I can over the next couple of weeks (including, I hope, the complete Criterion box set Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22), which I explore in my MSN column).
I didn’t see Repo Men (Universal), the satirical sci-fi thriller about a future where organ transplants on credit are next big credit default market and starring Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker are the guys who do the repossessing, though my MSN and Parallax View colleague Kathleen Murphy found is dark fun. Unfortunately I did see the new Clash of the Titans (Warner), the 3D disaster that is arriving in standard 2D (or “flat”) DVD and Blu-ray. And yes, it’s as flat as they come.