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Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Dir: Andrew Lau

Rating: 2.2/5.0

Variance Films

106 Minutes

You’ve probably seen it in a movie before: a sumptuous nightclub full of beautiful women, dangerous men, swirling intrigue and secret identities, set against a backdrop of nationalistic fervor and foreign invasion. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen takes this superficially promising but ultimately tired formula, pumps it full of glitz and garish color, adds references to film noir standards and superhero classics and then serves the whole thing up on a kung-fu platter. And honestly, it’s kind of a mess.

Andrew Lau’s overblown, complex, at times gratuitously gory and always melodramatic plotline only serves in the end to detract from the real star of any kung-fu movie – the fighting itself. This is a shame, since star Donnie Yen puts up two impressively furious fists (when he’s given the chance, that is) with refreshingly little help from over-the-top effects magic. The all-too-rare fight scenes in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen are never boring; but when the action subsides, we’re left with a confused dissatisfaction that nags halfheartedly and fails to inspire a second viewing to fill in the gaps.

Donnie Yen reprises his 1995 “Fists of Fury” television stint as Chen Zhen and steps into the admittedly daunting shoes of kung-fu greats Bruce Lee and Jet Li with aplomb – at least in the action sequences, anyway. The film opens in 1917, where Zhen, who is presumed dead back in China, is fighting on the front lines in France with a group of Chinese laborers brought in to aid the Allies in the heat of World War I. When Zhen’s comrade Qi Tianyuan is killed in action, Zhen adopts his identity in order to remain incognito back home.

Fast forward eight years and we find Zhen in Shanghai, infiltrating the mob circle in charge of the Casablanca Club (named for an obvious but anachronistic reference that is more distracting than effective). Zhen hopes to gain intelligence at the club that will allow him to foil Japanese invaders seeking to conquer China. But as he cozies up to club owner Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong) and seductive hostess Kiki (Shu Qi) in order to learn more about their Japanese patrons, he also dabbles in after-dark crime fighting as the pleather-clad Masked Warrior – and rouses the suspicions of Japanese Colonel Chikaraishi Takeshi (Ryu Kohata), who suspects that the supposed playboy “Tianyuan” is in fact his arch-nemesis Chen Zhen.

Things just get more complicated from there, and that’s the thing about this movie – Legend of the Fist is an intricate story, which in and of itself is no problem at all. But as the film progresses, full to the brim with big set pieces and poorly-employed slow motion sequences, we get the sense that some of this is simply intricacy for intricacy’s sake…and begin wonder why we’re being forced to wait so damn long between fight sequences. It’s as if Lau decided to merge period drama, superhero shtick, musical extravaganza and kung-fu without ever quite determining why or to what purpose – and it takes its toll. By opening with newsreel footage of the war, then switching to kung-fu fighting amidst the trenches, then cutting to an opulent Shanghai that feels almost cartoonish as the backdrop for the Masked Warrior’s death-defying vigilante mission before veering off on a dark, grotesquely graphic tangent of torture, mass murder and rape, Lau requires the viewer to breathlessly keep pace with his constantly changing gears. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give us a good enough reason to try very hard, and this combined with the tragic technical mishap of tiny, white and difficult-to-read subtitles renders Legend of the Fist fatally hard to follow.

Of course, this last complaint is reserved for those of us who can’t speak Cantonese (like me, for instance). And as for the complexity of the plot, this reviewer at least might have found it much less daunting had she possessed a bit more knowledge of Chinese history before settling in, popcorn in hand, for her kung-fu fix of the week. But at the end of the day, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is not a great film and no degree of linguistic or historical knowledge could make it so. It is merely a frustratingly scattered movie that would have been better served by half a dozen more action scenes and far less gratuitous detail.

by Lauren Westerfield

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