Anytime you see a nightclub named “Casablanca,” you know that it is going to be the center for lots of political intrigue and dealings of the legally questionable kind. The nightclub so named in Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen is certainly lives up to that expectation. It is Shanghai of the 1920s, and the nightclub Casablanca is a meeting place for criminals, English diplomats and ranking Japanese military personnel all looking to turn to their advantage the internal strife plaguing China.
Taking to the streets to protect the Chinese people getting caught in the crossfire of these various factions is Chen Zhen, a people’s hero long thought gone. Hiding behind the name of a comrade killed while in Europe during World War One, Chen fights to rid Shanghai of its criminal element and the foreigners who wish to add China to their own empires. The police can’t figure out who he is and the gangs and diplomats don’t care, they just want him dead.
The script gives a lot of material for director Andrew Lau to work with. Too much as it turns out, as the film, especially in the middle, doesn’t really seem to gel into any one thing. At times political drama and other times a superhero action film and a police procedural thriller, Lau never is able to settle on a concrete tone for the film. The result, if one is looking for more than just martial arts action, is disappointing; especially considering the strength of Lau’s Infernal Affairs trilogy.
And while the film isn’t solely a martial arts extravaganza, what action sequences there are are shot with verve by Lau and staged with some bone crunching intensity by Yen, who also serves as fight choreographer for the film. Of the three films in this year’s festival to feature Yen, Legend Of the Fist just inches out Ip Man 2 and Bodyguards And Assassins for fight scenes that showcase Yen in action, if only on the strength of its opening World War One segment.
It should be noted that Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen is the big screen follow up to the 1995 Hong Kong television series Fist Of Fury which helped catapult Donnie Yen to stardom. You need not have seen the original series to know what is going on here. In fact, the series ended with Chen being, apparently as it turns out, shot to death. No real mention is made of how he survived that fate or how he came to be in Europe with several other Chinese nationals during World War One where we find him at the start of the film. And if the film can’t be that concerned with explaining any of that back story, then perhaps we shouldn’t be either. Legend Of The First still provides plenty of thrills for genre fans even if it might not serve up enough for other audiences.