An iconic figure in Chinese martial-arts cinema receives less-than-iconic treatment in “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.” Reincarnating the titular kung fu warrior as an avatar of anti-Japanese aggression in 1920s Shanghai, Andrew Lau’s frenzied, flashily violent period actioner boasts more nuance in its ultra-stylized color palette than in its delineation of personalities, relationships and international battle lines. The whiplash virtuosity of the pic’s action sequences could help carve out an audience on Sept. 23 local release, but abroad, this superhero spin on a largely Eastern legend will appeal primarily to Asian genre aficionados on homevid.
First incarnated onscreen by Bruce Lee in 1972’s “Fist of Fury,” the fictional Chen Zhen has since been regularly called upon to kick Japanese butt in a range of historical contexts. Various actors have played the part, including Jet Li (1994’s “Fist of Legend”) and Donnie Yen (the popular 1995 TV series “Fist of Fury”), who reprises the role here under very different circumstances as a masked avenger and protector of the post-WWI Chinese resistance.
Monochrome mock-archival footage bleeds (quite literally) into color in the full-throttle prologue, which finds Chen (Yen) and other Chinese laborers fighting alongside the French in 1917, Chen’s lightning-quick moves proving improbably effective against the Germans’ heavy artillery. Pic then somersaults ahead to 1925, with Chen now hiding behind a lounge lizard’s mustache as an entrepreneur and occasional pianist at Shanghai’s Casablanca nightclub.
Presided over by owner Liu Yiutian (Anthony Wong), a deceptively neutral presence, the club is a microcosm of the city itself — a highly combustible nexus of warring expatriate factions, Japan being the most dominant and oppressive. The film represents its own muddle of competing priorities; scripted by four writers, with often illogically structured flashbacks, the story tries to ignite sparks between Chen and sexy nightclub singer Kiki (Shu Qi), who harbors a secret identity of her own, while bending over backward to work in a recurring plot point from previous “Fist” pics: Chen’s fabled defeat of an entire dojo of Japanese students and their master.
When Japanese assassins begin targeting Chinese and British nationals on a widely disseminated “death list,” Chen dons a black mask and intervenes on behalf of an underground network of Chinese spies and resistance fighters. A grisly montage of murders and rescue attempts ensues, as events build toward a brutal showdown between Chen and one high-ranking Japanese official (Kohata Ryuichi, convincingly ruthless) who’s nursing a grudge of his own.
As usual, Lau (best known Stateside for his “Infernal Affairs” trilogy) handles lensing as well as helming duties, and he makes dazzling use of lighting and color schemes, particularly in the nightclub sequences, with their swinging ’20s opulence. But the film’s reluctance to hold any shot longer than a few seconds gives it a jerky, cluttered feel, all movement and no momentum; while the action sequences deliver an occasional punch, they seem unduly fixated on the sight of blades puncturing flesh, generating little in the way of sustained tension or kinetic grace.
It would help if Chen himself were an easier guy to root for, but while the man initially seems a suave, chameleonlike manipulator, Yen’s presence here is typically humorless and constricted, inflating Chen into a battered, bleeding symbol of Chinese resilience but not much of a character.
Pic derives considerable visual luster from the period flourishes of art director Eric Lam and costume designer Dora Ng, lending the proceedings an air of brazen artifice that reinforces the Chen-as-superhero angle but feels at odds with the film’s more sobering depictions of wartime atrocities. Dubbing of certain actors is often atrocious, and makes nonsense of Shu’s characterization in particular, despite the Taiwanese actress’ often piercing delivery of key emotional moments.