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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Review: ‘Legend of the Fist’

SDAFF Favorite Returns for Theatrical Run

Donnie Yen is in peak form as Chen Zhen in

Credit: Well Go

Above: Donnie Yen is in peak form as Chen Zhen in "Legend of the Fist."

Action fans have something to rejoice about: "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen" (opening May 13 at Reading's Gaslamp Theaters) will be available on the big screen with Donnie Yen in peak form! The film had its San Diego premiere last October at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The fact that "Priest" is opening the same weekend as "Legend of the Fist" in San Diego only makes Hollywood's ineptitude at making action films stand out in bold relief. Even films that deliver a fun thrill ride like "Fast Five" can't hold a candle to the genuine action genius found in most Asian genre films. Maybe it's the Asian blood in me that makes me swoon over films like "Legend of the Fist," but there's something about these martial arts films that dazzles me in ways that most other action films rarely do. (Some noted exceptions include "The Matrix" and ""Shoot 'Em Up").

Photo credit: Well Go

A sample of the breathtaking and gravity defying fight choreography of "Legend of the Fist."

Asian action films are really about choreographing fights for the screen. They are dances in which skill, physical grace and beauty, power, and a dynamic interaction with the environment are all key. Now that Jackie Chan is slowing down a bit and both he and John Woo are working in Hollywood more than Asia, Donnie Yen seems to have stepped up his game to fill in the void and deliver some kick-ass action films. Yen recently made jaws drop with "Flashpoint" and "SPL," now he turns to a familiar legend to give us the best action film of the year.

The fictional character of Chen Zhen that Yen takes on is supposedly based on Liu Zhensheng, a real student of martial arts master Huo Yuanjia. Chen was most famously played by Bruce Lee in the 1972 cult classic "Fist of Fury," and the role helped shoot him to international fame. The brilliant fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping focused on the master rather than the student in his "Huo Yuan-Jia" in 1982. And then Jet Li has the distinction of really milking the legend by playing

the student Chen Zhen in "Fist of Legend" (1994) and then taking on the role of the teacher Huo Yuanjia in "Fearless" (2006). Now Yen, who first played the character in a television series in 1995, reprises the role and kicks it up yet another notch. Each adaptation gives Chen Zhen's story a slightly different spin but all are ultimately about student Chen Zhen's need to avenge the death of his teacher Huo Yuanjia.

Photo credit: Well Go

Donnie Yen in "Legend of the Fist."

Set in 1920s China, "Legend of the Fist" presents a nation divided by infighting. Japan has become a power to be reckoned with and is flexing its muscles in Northern Shanghai. A popular nightclub has become the meeting place for spies, mobsters, British officials and the Japanese military, all jockeying for power. Enter Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen). After fighting alongside the Allied forces in Europe, Chen has returned to find his country in turmoil.

Director Andrew Lau (not to be confused with actor Andy Lau) and writer Gordon Chan give their version of the story a kind of Batman/Green Hornet superhero spin by having Chen choose to present himself as a playboy by day and a masked crusader by night. His goal is to subvert the Japanese invasion.

Trailer: "Legend of the Fist"

Trailer for "Legend of the Fist"

The press materials describe it as "Combining the best of today's martial arts and superhero action with the classic spy thrillers of the past (and a healthy dollop of film noir on top), 'Legend of the Fist' is the rare action film that truly gives the audience something they've never seen before." And for once I have to agree with the hype. "Legend of the Fist" delivers on all counts. It draws on historical elements to give the story some legitimate weight yet never lets that prevent it from going over the top to deliver an action film that's both gritty, gravity defying, and breathtaking. One of the reasons why I like Asian action films is that the action is usually well integrated into the story and not merely set pieces. The action and the way people choose to fight reflects and reveals their character. Action here is more than just eye candy and adrenaline.

"Legend of the Fist" (in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese with English subtitles) serves up a return to classic Hong Kong action. It offers a compelling tale, spiced up with historical detail, and fueled by jaw-dropping action. With each new film Yen seems to be gaining maturity and showing greater mastery of the film medium. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and get off your butts to go see Yen kick some serious ass!

Companion viewing: "Flashpoint," "SPL," "Fist of Fury," "Fist of Legend," " Fearless"

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