Oh I do like to punish myself. Why else would I watch a film that is based on a character that has appeared in numerous Films and TV Series, that I have never seen. Moreover, this one is a direct sequel to a popular TV show that I have never watched? The answer is I think in the casting. Donnie Yen has been on a roll recently, the perma-tan and unbuttoned shirts being replaced by some recently uncovered acting ability to match his undoubted fighting skills. Shu Qi has also appeared in a few exceptional movies, and I usually find her very watchable, and far more than the obvious eye candy. Add a supporting cast that includes Anthony Wong, and well, it would be rude of me not to watch it huh?
The rather over-titled “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” starts during the first world war, where we are shown the role that a small number of Chinese played in supporting the British and French Efforts. After a rather decent action sequence, where Chen Zhen (Yen) fakes his death, we are bought forward to pre-sino war Shanghai, where the city is still vibrant, but in cut up under the control of various parties, including the British, and most importantly, the Japanese. We spend most of our time in a 1920’s nightclub, owned by a somewhat shady “businessman” Liu Yutian(Wong), where the star attraction is singer Kiki (Shu Qi). Chen Zhen appears on the scene, and somehow ingratiates himself into becoming a partner in the nightclub, although this is really a way to gather information for the resistance movement, as the club is frequented by all the various nationalities. Chen Zhen gets involved in foiling an assassination attempt on the son of a Chinese Warlord, and does so whilst dressed as a film character, who looks something like Kato from The Green Hornet. Thus the resistance now has a superhero to rally around. Sadly, the Japanese really up their game, and bring ever more extreme pressure to bear on the Chinese, which is not helped by some characters not being totally honest about where their allegiances lie.
The film is as good looking as you would expect from the money spent on it and the visual talents of Andrew Lau behind the lens. Some shaky CGI notwithstanding, the recreation of 1920’s Shanghai is well done. Sadly, although Lau certainly knows how to do good looking, I am never to sure her really knows how to direct that well – the camera is always moving, which I find annoying, and the action sequences are too close up. We see lots of preening and jumping about, but too often we just see a foot or a fist in close up hitting flesh or a wall. Whilst the action is indeed ok, and actually welcome (and to be fair, the opening sequence is quite excellent), there really is not enough of it.
Because you see, the film is quite boring. I’m all for talking in a movie, when it adds to character development, or even for a bit of exposition. But there is a severe lack of chemistry between the principles, and I am not sure it is the actors fault.
I’m going to spoil a few things now, but I think it is ok, as the reveal happens in the first 30 minutes of the film. It turns out that Kiki is not just a Nightclub singer fond of drinking. She is actually a Japanese Spy. So the idea is that she starts a relationship with Chen Zhen, and he of course would be heartbroken by this. Except, there really is never any spark between them. Not once did I get the feeling he was taken in by her, and her sudden change of heart seems driven by the story rather than her characterisation. Wong does his best, but again his character has no depth. We are told he is a little bit shady, and purely concerned with self interest, but that really does not play itself out on the screen.
In fact, this is the problem with the film. So much is left out. I really don’t know how Chen Zhen got freed from his captivity. I don’t buy Kiki’s change of heart. The superhero part which could have added some excitement is on the whole reduced to a couple of little montages. I have no idea whatsoever have Chen Zhen actually became a partner in the Nightclub. I am told it happened, and I am told it is a good thing. But how? I’m really not sure. It is like the writers decided to show the wrong beats of the story.
And boy is it racist. I know the Japanese are responsible for some awful things. But this bunch are utterly one-dimensional. And that makes the film unbalanced. Even the usual pariah’s of these films, the British, are shown to be painted in some slightly more flattering colours at times (even if it is little more than shouting “**** off Japs”). It isn’t helped by the fact the end sequence is based on an event from the TV show, and is homaging the original Bruce Lee film, but it fails more because it is not actually working with the story of resistance that the film is trying to portray.
It’s not utterly awful. Huang Bo is a lot of fun as the local Policeman who is balancing satisfying his British masters against his resistance work, by playing a bumbling character. It’s just a shame he seems to have been written out for the final 30 minutes. The opening sequence is great fun, and actually quite informative (although it probably suggests the Chinese influence on the Great War was quite a lot more than it actually was). In fact a lot of the best work is done in the opening 25 minutes of the film, our introduction to the Nightclub is also spectacular, but again it becomes a sequence without import – the Nightclub could have been a rallying point for both the resistance and an ideal location for the final battle, but instead it is merely a location for people to talk in.
In the end, an opportunity lost. There is some good stuff hidden in here, so it does get a Mildly Recommended, but it is one of those that you know could and should have been one heck of a lot better.