In 1971 Bruce Lee created the masterpiece Fist of Fury in which he played Chen Zhen, a real life student of the real life Grandmaster Hou Yuan Jia. Legend has it that Hou, co-founder of the Jing Wu Athletic Association, was secretly poisoned by the Japanese. Chen Zhen, whose actual exploits is not known, stands up to the dastardly Japanese and avenges his master’s death. In 1994, Jet Li took on this character in the re-imagining Fist of Legend. This story gives some of the Japanese characters more depth and Chen Zhen himself has a Japanese girlfriend. Racism on both sides is shown, but mostly it’s still the Japanese. What’s ironic is that Jet Li also played Hou Yuan Jia in Fearless (2006). Jia’s early life can also be seen in the good Legend of a Fighter (1982). Moving to 1995, Donnie Yen took his first stab at Chen Zhen in a TV series adaptation of the same story. Finally we fast forward to 2010 where, for the first time, we follow Zhen (again played by Donnie Yen) after these events. You could consider this movie a sequel to any of these three imaginings of the iconic character. One thing is certain: when you have the words ‘Legend’ or ‘Fist’ in your movie title, chances are Chen Zhen isn’t too far behind.
Starting in the battlefields of WW1, the Chinese labor workers are helping the Allies fight off the Germans somewhere in France, when suddenly the soldiers retreat, leaving the untrained Chinese men alone to face the enemy. Chen Zhen quickly goes into overdrive as he free-runs his way up to the German stronghold and precedes to stab everyone 50 times before they fall. After this crazy opening, we go forward several years to a Shanghai divided into settlements, showing the loss of Chinese identity and strength. The Japanese are slowly taking over and Chen Zhen is once again in the middle putting together a resistance force. This time he has a grand plan, which is to become a superhero. His costume pays homage to Bruce Lee as he looks suspiciously like Kato from The Green Hornet. This is forgivable since he looks awesome in it. It is an over-the-top (but kinda fun) movie which is flashy and heavy on Bruce homages, but light on character development.
This film received generally poor reviews and I can understand why. The Japanese are once again one-dimensional bad guys that don’t have a second thought about killing anyone that gets in their way. Donnie was also critical of director Andrew Lau deleting important scenes of character development. It’s too bad because this movie, though flawed, had potential. And like most super-hero type films, it ends abruptly as if setting up for more adventures. The movie wants to be like Batman Begins, but the origin moments are painfully short. I wanted to know more about why Zhen chose to be the ‘Masked Warrior’. At least when he becomes the Kato-like hero, he kicks major ass. The action scenes are generally satisfying, though not Donnie’s best work. There are some quick camera cuts that make you think they got short on time. I was disappointed that Donnie did not don the suit for the finale either. Instead they had to throw in another nod to Bruce by having him in full Jing Wu uniform. What’s interesting is that though the film fails to be Batman Begins, Donnie’s band of rebels almost feel like The League of Shadows, in that they are willing to do what is necessary, which in this case is kill a lot of Japanese. This film doesn’t shy away from the violence, but some of the implied violence is actually the worst stuff. I wish they didn’t include all of this, but it is what it is. This was a dark time and I’m sure what happened wasn’t far from truth.
As far as general historical accuracy, it’s important to point out a couple things. There actually was a Chinese Labour Corps in WW1 recruited by the British to help the Allies with manual labor. According to the movie 100,000 workers were recruited. There were real reports of mistreatment during this time. The Japanese presence in Shanghai was also constantly rising since WW1. By the 1930’s, they were easily the most powerful force there. There is one incident in history called the May Thirtieth Movement which involved young Chinese protestors in Shanghai being fired upon by police. Something similar happens in the film when a group protests the Japanese killings and injustice. Perhaps this was supposed to be the same incident, I’m not really sure.
In all, this is a decent effort, but they didn’t take the time to make it something special. What we get is something that is fun to watch, but feels too much like a Chinese flag-waving party. There are some good fight moments, and some good acting by Donnie as well. I just wished they wouldn’t have spent so much time on the Bruce Lee homages and spent more on the script.
*** out of *****
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