Chinese martial artist Donnie Yen was the unofficial king of Fantastic Fest 2010. With three films circulating at the fest, it was hard not to see at least one of them and bear witness to the man’s extraordinary ass-kicking skills. Although the quality and consistency of his films is debatable, Yen’s charisma is not. I cannot think of a more appealing movie artist, a guy who I love to watch even when he’s not snapping limbs and throwing people through walls.
Not to say his movies are lacking in any sort of limb snapping and people-throwing. Oh, no. In fact, take the opening sequence of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen may be one of the most joyously innovative action scenes in recent memory. It’s 1917 and the titular martial artist (Yen) is drafted as a laborer and shipped off to a war-torn Europe to lug ammo and supplies for the allies. When his unarmed team is cut off and under fire from a German machine gun, Chen Zhen does what any martial arts master worth his salt would do: he takes on what looks like an entire platoon of heavily armed soldiers single-handedly, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, using fallen cables to swing across broken buildings, breaking necks and arms and ripping the bayonets off enemy rifles and slicing throats, all without picking up a gun. Legend of the fist, indeed.
It’s an incredible scene. You just haven’t lived until you’ve seen an extremely calm Chinese man take down a dug-in machine with his bare hands. So it’s disappointing that the film flash-forwards seven years to tell the story of Chen Zhen working as an undercover agent to take down the Japanese forces occupying Shanghai. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the bulk of Legend of the Fist…just how do you live up to that opening scene? Screw sequels, give me a WWI-centric prequel!
There are fun touches throughout the rest of the film. To maintain his cover and simultaneously protect the people of Shanghai, Chen Zhen dons a mask and costume (actually a stolen movie prop) to lay the hurt down on marauding Japanese soldiers. His struggle to undermine his enemies by day and kick their asses by night leads to some interesting conflict, especially when a “hit list” is leaked and Chen Zhen struggles to protect everyone on that list before they can be assassinated. It’s a shame that much of the story feels so generic. There are the expected plot twists and betrayals, the expected heroic sacrifices, the expected romantic beats. Strangely, a number of interesting moments are reduced to a montage, as if the movie wants to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. It’s a shame, really.
Which brings me to Ip Man 2, a film that lacks the scope of Legend of the Fist but has personality and energy to spare. You don’t need to have seen the first film to get the gist of what’s happening: Wing Chun master Ip Man wants to open a martial arts school in Hong Kong. The masters of the other schools don’t want him to. So he kicks their asses.
Now, that makes it sound like Ip Man goes out his way to hurt his opponents, but that’s not the case. Here’s the true joy of Donnie Yen, readily apparent in Ip Man 2 (and its predecessor): he seems like a nice guy. With an Aw Shucks smile and kind eyes, Yen appears humble and intelligent, ready to talk his way out of a fight unless he absolutely has to. We don’t root for Yen because he’s awesome. We root for Yen because if you strip away his ability to ruin our spinal cords, he seems like the nicest guy the world. Hell, when he has an opponent on the ground he will repeatedly almost hit them, stopping right before contact, just to prove that while he could have hit them, he didn’t. Not to show off, but as a gesture of peace.
Ip Man 2 gives Yen more character time than Legend of the Fist, allowing us to feel involved in his plight as he trains his students and faces down the other local masters, led by the wonderful (and legendary) Sammo Hung. The film wouldn’t have worked without Hung, who makes his character totally sympathetic, a perfect foil, adversary and even, strangely enough, friend for Ip Man.
The plotting in Ip Man 2 is a little messier than it needs to be. The story seems completely finished at the halfway point, but then another plot rears its head and the second half of the film becomes a scene-for-scene remake of Rocky IV with the British in place of the Russians. Yes, scene for scene, beat for beat. If it happened in Rocky IV, it happens in the second half of Ip Man 2. This isn’t a movie-killer (although I never bought for a second that a British boxer would be anything resembling a challenge to Ip Man), but it definitely hurts and it’s the main reason why the first Ip Man is one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made and the sequel is just a lot of fun.
Fairing less well is 14 Blades, which trades in 20th century China for the Ming Dynasty. Yen plays the emperor’s elite bodyguard, who is betrayed and framed for treason. He goes on the run, plots to get his revenge and clear his name and because he’s Donnie Yen he does, leaving a pile of bodies and shattered bones in his wake.
While Ip Man 2 and Legend of the Fist are reasonably down-to-earth films, 14 Blades is from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon school of martial arts films: a lot of fancy wirework and a lot of muddled mysticism. The best word to describe this film would be “muddy.” From the ugly cinematography to the strange, vague storyline and even more vague characters, watching 14 Blades means you are fighting it, desperately trying to understand what’s going on, what everyone’s motivation is and why the villain can teleport and why no one finds that particularly strange or frightening.
There area handful of nifty moments, most of them involving typical Donnie Yen ass-kicking, but the fights are not shot particularly well, with too many close-ups and an over-reliance on cheesy slow-motion. The best thing a martial arts movie can do is get the camera ready, take ten steps back and call action. 14 Blades‘ attempts to be be slick and cool and Hollywood backfire in its face. We don’t want to watch a Chinese action film to see generic Hollywood filmmaking! One, they don’t have the budget to pull it off and two, this is where we go to escape from generic Hollywood filmmaking.
Although the film is a mess, one thing remains clear: Donnie Yen is the best guy operating in this genre, a real class act who understand the importance of variety in his performances. All three of these films are wildly different and yet he effortlessly anchors them. The man is a star.
Ip Man 2: 8 out of 10
14 Blades: 6 out of 10