The role of Chen Zhen is a storied one in Hong Kong film. First played by Bruce Lee in (arguably his best film) Fist of Fury, the fictional vengeful student of real-life martial artist Huo Yuan Jia has been played by Jet Li (in Fist of Legend, also a classic), and in television adaptations by Donnie Yen, Bruce Leung and Jordan Chan. Fist of Fury’s original director Lo Wei also went on to make a sequel, 1976’s New Fist of Fury to showcase his next discovery — Jackie Chan.
These films all followed (and likely reinforced, given their huge popularity) a well-established kung fu film standard: the young, talented martial artist, mistreated by evil outsiders, is driven to wreak a terrible vengeance when he is finally pushed one step too far. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Fist of Fury omits the training sequence usually required to bring the hero up to speed on what he needs to defeat his foes — Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen is an avenging angel, more than a match for anyone he takes on.
Legend of the Fist takes all of this as read, picking up the story of Chen Zhen after the (apparently survivable) climax of Fist of Fury. After that day at the dojo, Chen (played once again by Donnie Yen) left China, joining the many Chinese who went to the France to aid the Allies in the first World War as labourers. The film begins with an impressively choreographed scene of Chen single-handedly saving the day, all flying leaps and split-second decisions. Soon enough, though, we leave France; assuming the identity of a fallen comrade, Chen Zhen returns to Shanghai, which is showing worrying signs of impending Japanese invasion.
There, he takes up with a group of anti-Japanese conspirators and befriends Liu Yutian (a magisterial Anthony Wong), who offers him a partnership in his club, the Casablanca. All glitz and glamour, it’s frequented by everyone who’s anyone, particularly foreigners… a perfect hangout for conspirators and spies. Taking centre stage in the main act is Kiki (Shu Qi), the singer and hostess, who quickly takes a shine to Chen — it’s probably the pencil-thin moustache.
One evening, Chen hears that the Japanese will attempt to assassinate General Zeng (Shawn Yue), the son of a warlord, hoping to start a war and make things easier for their invasion. Taking matters into his own hands, our Donnie dons a mask (tipping his hat to The Green Hornet) and dispenses justice, superhero-style. It’s all very reminiscent of the Hollywood fascination with comic book adaptations, albeit with no super powers — perhaps Chen’s fists and feet are super enough for this universe.
Directed by Infernal Affairs co-director Andrew Lau (who also handled the photography with Ng Man-Ching, as with the two IA sequels), Legend of the Fist is a big, flashy piece of work. The camera glides through old Shanghai in almost exclusively night scenes, all the better to show you all that neon reflecting off shiny black cars, surrounded by sharply-dressed men in natty suits and hats.
The action sequences, which is probably what this particular target audience plunk down their cash to see, are what we’ve come to expect from Donnie Yen over the last decade or so — a fairly large part of the film’s runtime is devoted to them, and they’re almost like a Donnie Yen action sequence sampler. Here, some free running and acrobatics. Here, a bit of grappling and MMA-influenced close combat. Finally, the flurry of punches we saw in Ip Man, with frequent nods to Bruce Lee’s performances.
It’s a fun ride with some good actors, great photography and solid action, but in the end, Legend of the Fist is a little bit underdone. As the title might suggest, the story and the characters play second fiddle to the action sequences, and (though they have occasional moments) Anthony Wong, Shu Qi and put-upon policeman Huang Bo just aren’t given enough to do to make their characters interesting. What story there is here feels like a gloss over another iteration of the core Fist story — it seems that no matter what happens, Chen Zhen always seems to end up back at the dojo.