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Gordon S. Miller Written by Gordon S. Miller
Apr. 18, 2011 | 2:38 PM

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Written by Caballero Oscuro

Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills might be the hook to get viewers in the theater, but the real star of this film is director Andrew Lau. His superb cinematography (also acting as director of photography), aided by some exquisite production design, builds and expands on the technical mastery he’s displayed in the past in films such as the entire Infernal Affairs trilogy (the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed) and the fantasy martial arts epic The Storm Riders. That’s not to say the film makes the most sense at all times, but it’s very, very pretty and artfully shot.

Yen plays the titular Chinese folk hero, a role that has also been handled by the likes of Bruce Lee and Jet Li in previous productions. In this incarnation, he’s a piano-playing playboy by day, and masked crusader by night, out to protect his fellow countrymen from the evil Japanese oppressors infesting Shanghai in the 1920s. He has recently returned to China after assisting Allied forces in Europe , a past we’re treated to courtesy of some epic battle footage that opens the film. Once ensconced back in Shanghai , Zhen goes to work for nightclub owner Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong) and falls under the spell of boozy songbird Kiki (Shu Qi), a happy existence marred by the Japanese interlopers threatening his country and friends. Taking a cue from a movie poster, Zhen becomes a masked vigilante and sets out to protect VIP countrymen targeted for elimination by the Japanese, a task he quickly learns is too monumental in scope in spite of his formidable martial arts skills.

Those skills are put through their paces in some thrilling but sparse fight footage choreographed by Yen. Yen still looks awesome in action, further demonstrating that he must have sold his soul to the devil as he seems to keep getting younger and more fit every year (he’s turning 48 this summer!). He has been on an absolute tear in the later stage of his career that continues with this solid addition to his filmography. However, viewers expecting wall-to-wall chop socky are warned that the film is far more historical drama than action thriller. Fortunately, Yen’s dramatic chops are also up to snuff, allowing him to successfully carry the film’s acting requirements on his athletic shoulders.

The story is a bit confusing in the early stages before settling into a comfortable us-against-them rebel tale that gets derailed by a surprising and far-fetched twist surrounding Kiki. There’s also a development involving a deep-seated grudge of the head Japanese in charge that is revealed far too conveniently and seemingly out of the blue, short on logic but long on setting up an epic showdown. The plot makes sense overall, but it’s best not to think too hard about any of it, especially when the film lurches to a clumsy and confusing final reveal and an oddly abrupt closing shot of Zhen. Its pacing is also a bit on the slow side, allowing us time to savor the sumptuous production design and sweeping camera work but sacrificing some momentum in the process. Ultimately, it’s well worth the price of admission, but far more so for its lush technical superiority and dramatic stars than its acrobatics or plot development.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen opens in select US theaters on April 22nd, 2011.

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