Nothing in Legend of the First manages to top a tripped-out opening sequence in which the titular hero, as part of a Chinese squad assisting Allied forces during WWI, takes on a German machine-gun nest with nothing but a knife and superhuman bipedal ass-kicking. That this sometimes-glorious actioner comes close, however, is indicative of the good time to be had herein. Flash forward to 1920s China, where Japanese and British forces compete for domination at the expense of the divided local populace. Still haunted by the war, Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen)—a staple of the martial-arts scene since first embodied by Bruce Lee in 1972’s Fist of Fury—poses as playboy Ku by day, frequenting the elitist nightclub Casablanca, where he befriends the owner, Liu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), and makes nice with the flirtatious hostess, Kiki (portrayed by Shu Qi, she’s actually an undercover Japanese soldier). By night, he dons a phantom-esque black mask and, going by the title of Masked Warrior, habitually tenderizes the malevolent forces of the city with lighting-fast martial arts and, ahem, fists of fury.
This follow-up to the 1995 television series Fist of Fury, in which Yen also helmed the central role, is clearly designed for those already in the know on this cultural legend, but the film remains most engaging when it dispatches with narrative excess and focuses on the beautifully orchestrated mayhem, which comes in brutal fits and spurts. Creaky plot mechanics concerning police corruption and backroom military strategy ultimately come off as unexamined lip service to the country’s political strife, and the caffeinated, impatient camerawork (compare to Kill Bill: Vol. 1‘s climactic “Crazy 88” sequence and make note of Quentin Tarantino’s precision of movement) only manages to further highlight how unfocused the film’s non-action sequences are. The exquisite art direction would scintillate more if the camera would only hold still, and a full reel could easily have been excised by a less generous editor, but when the fists go flying, so too do most of these other concerns. Until we’re treated to another Tony Jaa spectacle, you could do far worse.