|A Flashy But Confusing Mess With Little To Offer|
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2011) directed by Andy Lau from China
A movie continuation of the TV series Fist of Fury starring Donnie Yen chronicling the life of Chen Zhen, The Return of Chen Zhen could still be considered a rough sequel to Jet Li's Fist of Legend itself a remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury as Jet Li's version also created a quiet exit for our hero to continue his adventures as opposed to dying a martyr's death in Bruce Lee's original version. But regardless of however you want to take its roots, Chen Zhen is still alive and well and has now landed himself deep undercover in 1925 era Shanghai after a quick movie preamble taking place in WWI demonstrates Chen Zhen taking it to the Kaiser big time, now all of his acquaintances go with the story that Chen Zhen died nobly during battle to keep the heat off from the occupying Japanese as they and the British saber rattle over whom should control what as the Chinese struggle to win their independence. Got that? But wait there's more...
Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) quickly impresses Liu Yutian
(Anthony Wong) the amiable but shady owner of the largest club in
Shanghai called Casablanca (note that) through his card-playing prowess
mixed with a lot of charm and moxy -- so much so that Yutian suddenly
makes him a partner in his club to basically rub elbows with the
customers and make them happy. Of course we soon find out this is just a
cover as Chen Zhen is still working for the underground Chinese
resistance and he hopes to use this position to spy on the Japanese and
gain access to various black market activities. Chen Zhen immediately
catches the eye of Casablanca's main singing/dancing attraction Kiki
(Shu Qi) who is also Yutian's main squeeze in a harem of "girlfriends"
he possesses and slightly disturbingly he is only too happy to share her
with Chen Zhen.
The activity in Shanghai gets intense when the two most powerful Chinese generals are visiting the city. The underground wants to convince one of the generals who is working with the Japanese to abandon them and join up with the opposition general. This desire of course makes the opposition general a big target for the Japanese and during an assassination attempt Chen Zhen seizes the moment to steal a nearby display costume from a "Masked Avenger" movie which basically is a nod to Bruce Lee's Kato character from The Green Hornet and Jet Li's Black Mask movie...which itself is a nod to Bruce Lee's Kato. What soon follows is an all out war between the Japanese and Chen Zhen as they boldly release a list of sympathizers they are going to kill and dare him to save them all -- a task all but impossible for one man.
The problem with all this is that immediately or with just a
handful of inquiries pretty much EVERYONE knows that the undercover
Chen Zhen is indeed the Masked Avenger character so his character just
seems a rather pointless formality and doesn't really tie into the film
all that well. But then again that's the main problem with this film,
it's a huge melting pot of genres and character types that just seem to
fly all over the place without a solid attempt to tie all these
disparate elements together into something coherent. As a result you
just sort of find yourself drifting from scene to scene, emotion to
emotion, genre to genre, without really any feeling for the characters
nor the actions they have themselves embroiled within -- the movie just
really doesn't seem to know what it's trying to be. This makes all the
characters and their respective actors rather inert as despite the
various shades of acting talent involved, everyone is just too hollow or
incredibly one dimensional for you to care what's happening to them no
matter how much blubbering, posturing or jingoism is involved. Speaking
of which, much like what was found in Yen's disappointing Ip Man 2
film, the old school '80s era Chinese nationalism is back in full force
baby and the amount of race and nation hate heaped on the Japanese and
foreigners in general rises to an often uncomfortable level. This of
course reduces the opposition to simple cartoon caricatures which in
turn undermines the struggles of the people we are supposed to be
rooting for. I really hope this isn't the start of a new trend.
But...ideally this is a Donnie Yen vehicle demonstrating his considerable martial arts skills and although the movie may not be ideal as we know many a film can be saved by a handful of scenes involving some great martial art fights. Unfortunately here the film also stumbles as the fights are very few and far between and are not only not particularly satisfying from a technical standpoint, but they aren't shot incredibly well. For some reason the director has gone for a rapid fire editing involving close-ups and little unnecessary under-cranking to speed things up with some mighty odd effects riddled digitally enhanced zooms and pull backs making some posing and movement feel like something that dropped straight out of a manga. This would be fine if Donnie Yen had choreographed a more over the top super-heroic approach to the fights, but oddly although he does mix in some unrealistic aspects to the fights, for the most part he keeps things realistic which makes the visual approach a bad match for the action - the end fight in particular is exceptionally underwhelming and poorly thought out.
Yet despite all the negatives that this film brings to the table, I was rather entranced by the high production level as far as Hong Kong films go. The sets are big, the colors and lights are bold, and the almost fantasy like Shanghai night life and the club Casablanca in particular spring to life and are very much inviting to the senses. It's just too bad that they couldn't tighten up all the other elements to make something a bit more coherent and exciting to watch. It's not horrific like watching Tony Jaa's films spiral out of control, but it's definitely not something I would recommend to anyone but an ardent Donnie Yen fan.