Leave it to Andrew Lau, the director most famous for co-helming Infernal Affairs, to drown a staid, fool-proof setup for success in grandiose tragedy and pseudo-significance. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen takes the blind ra-ra nationalism and the star of the recent blockbusting Ip Man movies and produces nothing memorable beyond a few hyper action scenes that are sure to give you a rush of blood to the head. These scenes tease you with the promise of a unique spin on the formula that Ip Man and Once Upon a Time in China before that, and Fists of Fury before even that, originally laid down. Basically: A conservative local hero stands up for his community by leading them in beating up callous and wholly unwelcome foreigners. If anything, Lau's film only proves that that subgenre of wuxia films is here to stay and no amount of uninspired storytelling can kill it.
Legend of the Fist sets itself apart from Yen's other recent martial arts vehicles by positioning Yen's character as a living, breathing comic book hero. A continuation of Fists of Fury, the film that originally made Bruce Lee famous, Legend of the Fist follows Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen), a suave do-gooder and staunch nationalist as he returns home in Shanghai after fighting in France during WWI. He has kicked much ass and done much good in his time abroad, and now that he's home, he's disgusted by the lawlessness he sees all around him, though he's never angry enough to endanger his daytime persona, one that he stole from a dead comrade in order to honor his memory.
Therein lies the crux of Legend of the Fist's rudderlessness: There are no stakes to it beyond Chen's ability to prove how much more ass he can kick (hint: a lot). When he dons a black mask similar to the one that Jet Li wore in Black Mask (duh) and one more directly inspired by Kato's mask from The Green Hornet, Chen isn't covering anyone's ass but his own. To be fair, he's friends with the editor (Zhang Songwen) of the Shanghai Times and has a romantic interest in Kiki (Shu Qi), who also happens to be a Japanese spy, but neither relation really depends on him. Chen at one point plays a game of one-upsmanship with Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryu), a Japanese colonel and rival ass-kicker, by betting that he can save more political dissidents on Chikaraishi's hit list than Chikaraishi can kill, but again, that has little to do with emotional investment and everything to do with pure “can you top that” zeal.
Unfortunately, Lau never cuts loose long enough to really embrace that spirit of gamesmanship. Only a handful of sped up fight scenes choreographed by Yen make Legend of the Fist worth watching. The film's first and second fight scenes are both superbly silly, over-the-top, and totally unfettered in their attempt to visualize, without any irony whatsoever, what a superhero played by a guy that actually knows how to kick ass would look like if he were let loose on a group of bad guys. The surreal speed with which Yen literally flies around—aided by wires, unfortunately—and dispatches villains is incredible, totally daft and an utter blast. The rest of the movie feels like it moves in slow motion by contrast.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen will play on February 25 as part of this year's Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.