American-Chinese martial artist Donnie Yen turns helmer with generally satisfying results in “Legend of the Wolf,” a formula revenge chopsocky with a distinctive flavor of its own. Buffs attuned to the minute differences between entries in the genre will relish Yen’s evident thought and care in trying something new. For more general auds, it’s a homevideo item with some terrif action.
Yen’s up-and-down screen career during the past 15 years has seen him occasionally break through in tailored vehicles (“Tiger Cage,” “Iron Monkey”) but never reach star status, despite fine work with director Yuen Woo-ping and a devoted offshore vid following. In “Legend,” the story’s a sliver and the flashback structure creaks. But Yen has fashioned a taut, intensively edited style of presenting the fights that exactly mirrors his own whiplash technique, combined with oblique story-telling that requires full concentration.
Pic gets straight down to business with a shadowy action sequence in which a stranger rescues a woman from some sickos. Post-main title, and in present-day Hong Kong, a yuppie makes an appointment to see the Wolf, a legendary assassin-for-hire, to get rid of a rival suitor of his girlfriend; through massive flashbacks that take up most of the pic, we learn how the Wolf and his sidekick first met and the former’s tragic background.
Most of the picture unspools in the late ’40s in a small village in Canton province, whither Man-hin (Yen) returns with a bad case of amnesia and takes up again with childhood sweetheart Wai-yee (Carmen Lee), who tends his wounds after a fight with some bandits. As the truth emerges about what Man-hin did during World War II, the local bandit chief closes in on him and the village, kidnapping Wai-yee in the bargain.
Large sections of the pic are sans dialogue, and that, combined with Wai Kai-leung’s wall-to-wall rhapsodic score, gives the whole thing the flavor of a half-remembered romantic saga that’s impressive for much of the time. When they come, the fights are explosively staged, with clever use of slo-mo, tight close-ups and rapid editing that manages to enhance rather than (as in many H.K. actioners) obscure the action.The final showdown between Yen and his oppo rings the changes again, with a respect for pure fighting form that harks back to martial-arters of the ’70s.
Though he still lacks a major screen persona, Yen is fine within the limits of the role here. Other players are colorful, and tech credits good, with some atmospheric lensing by Wong Ka-fai.