For those who wished Ang Lee’s 2007 historical romance Lust, Caution was instead Lust, Caution, Ass-Kicking, here’s some good news. Director Andrew Lau and action star Donnie Yen set their mixed-martial-arts epic Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen in the same region a decade earlier, so it’s like a prequel, but with way more broken bones. The movie opens in World War I, then shifts to ’20s Shanghai, where a band of brothers who fought on the front lines in Europe re-band to thwart the imperious Japanese. Leading the charge? Yen’s Chen Zhen, a legendary, possibly immortal fighter who dons a black mask to bring his special brand of pain to those who would oppress his people. Chen’s primary weaknesses are his attraction to nightclub singer/enemy spy Shu Qi, and his loyalty to friends who lack his strength.
Yen played Chen Zhen on television in the ’90s series Fist Of Fury, based on the Bruce Lee movie of the same name. Legend Of The Fist makes passing reference to things that happened on the TV show, and that thicket of unexplained backstory—combined with the dense historical references—can make the film a little hard to follow at times. It doesn’t help either that the Japanese plan involves setting tenuous Chinese allies against each other, or that Chen’s colleagues are frequently so hapless that it’s difficult to tell from scene to scene who’s with the hero and who’s against him.
But the period detail is eye-poppingly opulent (again, à la Ang Lee), and there aren’t enough A’s in “bad-ass” to describe the fight scenes. They’re as brutal as they are gravity-defying, with lots of throat-punches, bloodletting, and hell-for-leather daring, as Yen imbues his hero with a genius for the physics of violence. It’s just too bad that Legend Of The Fist breaks up that action with long scenes of well-dressed men and women sitting around in nightclubs, talking politics.