Although one expects more from producer Gordon Chan and the director Andrew Lau of the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy -- which Martin Scorsese remade into "The Departed" -- "Legend of the Fist" still is good fun, a popcorn movie of epic proportions for kung fu fans.
The film feels tailored to Western palates -- sure there's violence, but it's toned down by Hong Kong standards, and even the fighting is cut back. Chinese and Hong Kong audiences might be critical of this take on an iconic cultural hero, but star Donnie Yen is a household name in Asia. With an all-star cast and the director's following, the film is practically a guaranteed megahit at the local box office.
"Fist" is all about Yen, who has the requisite acting and kung fu chops to play a suave, sensitive and serious badass. The martial-arts superstar slips back into the legendary role of Chen Zhen, who has had countless incarnations, the most memorable by Bruce Lee in "Fist of Fury." Yen actually played Zhen in a popular 1995 TV series, and the years have left him no worse for wear.
The film opens in 1917 France, where Third World recruits -- including countless Chinese -- were brought to Europe by the French and British to help with the war effort. Most of them died on the front, a fate the noble Zhen promises to spare his friends. Just when you think you've seen every battle scene imaginable, Yen, who also served as action master on "Fist," delivers the film's best and most breathtaking fight sequence. Bayonets and bullets are nothing against Zhen's superhuman skills.
Eight years later, Zhen resurfaces, disguised (in, ahem, only a tiny mustache) as a piano player working in Casablanca, Shanghai's hottest nightclub. He befriends the owner (Anthony Wong, always a joy to watch) and falls for hostess-siren-singer Kiki (the impossibly beautiful Shu Qi) as he secretly leads the Resistance against the Japanese occupation of China, led in Shanghai by a ruthless Japanese general (Kohata Ryuichi).
Zhen also dons a black suit and mask and starts fighting the Japanese single-handedly as the Masked Avenger. He hovers over the city like Batman, which adds to the film's comic-strip feel, along with the stylized sets placed in a CGI Shanghai.Lau is a rare breed of director: He has leased almost all of his own films, and his trademark visual pizzazz is there, if not the gritty intensity of his other work.
There is nice, taut chemistry between Yen and Qi, whose alcoholic and vulnerable character hides terrible secrets of her own. The actress has made a mind-boggling 45 films in the past six years but still delivers one of the film's best performances. The music is properly grandiose, and the cast has a blast playing heroes and bad guys.