Donnie Yen had a very, very good Fantastic Fest, even if he wasn't there.

The icons of martial arts cinema have been on the wane as of late, and for understandable reasons.  Jackie Chan is probably lucky just to be walking at this point in his life, and Jet Li just doesn't seem to have the drive anymore.  Tony Jaa, the most recent addition to the canon, cracked up and basically destroyed his own career.  Although I've seen many strong martial arts films in the last few years, I don't think there's any single performer who has stepped up as an instantly recognizable star, and that's a shame.

That's why I'm sort of amazed by the resurgence in the last few years by Donnie Yen, who I've always considered one of the best actors out of all the current generation martial arts stars.  In three films playing at Fantastic Fest 2010, Yen's work is showcased in three very different ways, and watching all three of those films is a great way to understand just how wonderful he is these days, and just how singular he seems to be in the world of action cinema these days.

I saw "14 Blades" at ActionFest in Asheville earlier this year, and as part of the jury at the fest, I helped award the film a citation for "Best Action Sequence."  There's a scene early on where Green Dragon (Donnie Yen) meets the Judge Of The Desert (Chun Wu), and they challenge one another to a certain display of skills in a certain period of time, and it's such a classic, simple way of establishing the way each of these characters fights that it seems to me to be a near-perfect scene to show someone who wants to understand why I'm drawn to martial arts films in the first place.  There's character, humor, thrills, and danger all wrapped up in one scene.

The movie itself doesn't quite work for me.  Director Daniel Lee's a fan of the kitchen-sink approach, and the film works really hard to tell a big and complicated story, but without much control.  The first half hour is a muddle, and the film's one great conceit (the legendary 14 blades of the title) is barely utilized.  Even so, there are a number of highlights in the film, and some genuinely thrilling scenes, and there are enough memorable villains in the movie for Yen to battle that it almost doesn't matter that they totally squander an appearance by Sammo Hung.

"Ip Man 2," by comparison, makes spectacular use of Hung, and he's got two very strong fight scenes in the film opposite Yen.  I'll review the original "Ip Man" later this week on Blu-ray, but for now, I'll just say it's a better movie than the sequel.  Having said that, I liked "Ip Man 2" from start to finish.  The first film is set against the backdrop of the second Sino-Japenese War, and as it draws to a close, the second film begins.  There's a different tone here, and the best comparison I can make is the difference between "Rocky" and "Rocky IV."  The first film is a fairly serious historical drama, and this second film is more of a bubblegum cartoon about the same character.  In this one, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong where he attempts to set up a martial arts school so he can teach his philosophy of Wing Chun.  The first act of the film is charming and funny, with a memorable introduction for Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), his first student.  He quickly picks up a number of students, but that's just the start of his troubles as he finds himself tested by the alliance of martial arts teachers already in Hong Kong, and Master Hung Quan (Sammo Hung) in particular.

The movie really kicks into gear when Mr. Twister (Darren Shahlavi), an American heavyweight boxing champion, is introduced.  He's the Big Boss, in video game parlance, and whenever he gets in the ring, he's a monster.  He doesn't just win his fights… he destroys his opponents.  It's an exuberant bad-guy performance, and the reason the last forty minutes of the film are as fun as they are is because of just how much fun it is to root against him.  I'm impressed that Wilson Yip is capable of making two films in a series as different as these, and to handle both

The stuff in the first film about Ip Man and his wife is actually pretty affecting, but in this film, it's much less successful.  She's a device this time around, not a character, and it's one of the things that makes this less overall impressive.  No matter, though… the performance by Donnie Yen is so charismatic and dynamic as Ip Man that t overcomes any real complaints I have about the film.  He is so grounded during each fight, so focused from move to move, that it makes the action scenes almost soothing.  They're just fun to watch because there's such a strong fluid through-line to each moment, each beat.  And there are at least five great fight scenes in the film, which means by my standards, I got everything I needed out of it as a martial arts movie.

The same is true of "Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen," directed with a big colorful comic book zeal by Andrew Lau.  Like "Ip Man 2," this is a nakedly nationalistic Chinese film, and in this case, Yen's playing one of the most famous Chinese movie characters, Chen Zhen, previously played by Bruce Lee in "Fist Of Fury" and Jet Li in "Fist Of Legend" as well as in a TV series that starred Yen, also called "Fist Of Fury."  This film is essentially a sequel to that six-episode series, picking up during Chen Zhen's time in France.  It's WWI, and the Chinese are employed carrying ammo to the foxholes.  The first ten minutes of the film are basically just Chen Zhen single-handedly defeating the Germans and winning the war, and it's so jaw-droppingly good that it almost makes the rest of the movie feel like a let-down.  Chen Zhen moves back to Hong Kong, where he hides under a fake name, posing as a club owner while fighting injustice as the Masked Warrior.  Many fights ensue.  And that's about it.  Eventually, he has to face down an evil dojo, and it's an amazing series of fights that pays off with the appearance of a pair of nunchuks at a key moment.  The film's not deep at all, and it meanders, and even more notably, it doesn't really end so much as set up "and then many more adventures happened" in a very craven way.  But Yen makes it worth watching in almost every scene, and it's again because of just how precise his performance is.

Three different iconic types of characters… the Green Dragon, Ip Man, and Chen Zhen… and in each one, Yen is totally different.  The Green Dragon is a bad man, consumed by his own knowledge that he's chosen a lesser path, who is suddenly forced to do something that is personal and not just some order he can follow without conscience or pity.  He's a swordfighter, a bruiser, a thug.  Ip Man is a centered, placid man who barely moves when he fights.  He's all about the absolute minimum, using just enough force to do what he has to.  He's got a smile that plays at the edge of his mouth during most of his fights because he knows just how powerful he is.  And with Chen Zhen, there's an abandon to his fighting because it's a form of release for him.  He's free when he's fighting, completely alive, and there's no move he won't use or try. 

Bruce Lee was one of the greatest movie stars of all time precisely because he was Bruce Lee every second he was onscreen.  I can't imagine saying, "Bruce Lee vanishes into the role" as a good thing, but in Yen's case, his ability to transform into each of these archetypes is his gift.  He's a real actor, not just a physical presence, and he's at his absolute physical peak these days.  He's as good as he's ever been, if not better, and his latest work was one of my personal favorite things about Fantastic Fest.

"Ip Man 2" opens in the US in the top ten markets January 28, 2011.

"Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen" opens wide April 15, 2011.


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