Film Review: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Fabled martial artist Chen Zhen battles a corrupt Japanese colonel in occupied Shanghai in the latest iteration of a beloved Hong Kong character.

In Legend of the Fist, Donnie Yen returns to the role that helped make him a television star back in 1995: Chen Zhen, a martial artist who takes down a Japanese military enclave during the occupation of Shanghai. It's a role Jackie Chan and Jet Li tried, although the most famous Chen Zhen may be Bruce Lee, who played him in Fist of Fury in 1972. Here, Yen brings excellent physical skills and single-minded intensity, but not much else, to a film with more ambition than coherence.

After a pre-credit flashback sequence shows Chen taking out a German machine-gun nest in World War I, the film settles into political intrigue in 1925 Shanghai. Chen belongs to an underground resistance movement that is trying to persuade rival warlords Zeng and Zhou to join forces against the Japanese. Businessmen like Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong), who owns the Casablanca nightclub, are torn between cooperating with and opposing the Japanese. Disguised as a playboy, Chen befriends Liu and is named manager of the club, a position that helps him keep tabs on his enemies. Chen also starts an affair with Liu's singer Kiki (Shu Qi).

Meanwhile, the evil Colonel Takeshi Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryuichi) releases a "Death List" of political opponents, both foreign and Chinese, that he intends to eliminate. Many flee Shanghai; those who remain are murdered. Inspired by a movie hero, Chen adopts another disguise as a "masked warrior," thwarting many of the Japanese assassins. When Chen kills Chikaraishi's brother in a fight, the ensuing violence escalates until the two enemies face off in mortal combat.

Opulent but also weirdly claustrophobic, Legend of the Fist unfolds on a handful of gigantic sets that have a hermetic, even antiseptic feel to them. Director Andrew Lau, also one of the film's cinematographers, prefers visual flash to narrative credibility, employing cranes and Steadicams to the point of inducing motion sickness.

Lush visuals come at the expense of plotting, which is both simplistic and hard to follow. The screenplay, credited to four writers, depicts the several layers of intrigue in a sort of shorthand, not bothering to explain or even identify several characters and situations. (Asian viewers familiar with the plot may have less trouble filling in the blanks.) Stereotypes, many racially offensive, abound, and there's something off-putting about reducing the genuine tragedy of the Shanghai occupation to a grudge match between gym rats. A chaotic editing scheme adds to the confusion.

Even the fights are disappointing. Yen, credited with action direction, choreographs the martial-arts encounters in a sort of blur in which few concrete details emerge. While the stunts were clearly difficult to perform, they're not much fun to watch, and frequently are so physically impossible as to become ludicrous.

Performances are difficult to judge due to uniformly atrocious dubbing. Yen, always a somewhat stiff actor, seems monotonous throughout. Taiwanese beauty Shu Qi, a wonderful screen presence in her other films, is limited to playing drunk or crying. Even the normally reliable Anthony Wong is lost, resorting to tics like tugging on his ear to try to give his character some personality. It's a lost cause in a film with the attention span of a toddler in a toy store.