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Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a pretty confusing proposition for those of us unfamiliar with its convoluted media history. I like to consider myself at least somewhat abreast of the basics of martial arts cinema, but I was still confused when I approached the back-story on imdb.com and wikipedia. Apparently Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (directed by Lo Wei, released in 1972) inspired a whole slew of official sequels and remakes, including New Fist of Fury (also directed by Wei, 1976), Fist of Legend (staring Jet Li, directed by Gordon Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, 1994), and a television series staring Donnie Yen (one of six such series). This film is marked as a sequel to the television series, which, according to its official synopsis, ended the same way Lee’s film did, with the character Chen Zhen being presumably killed in a hail of Japanese bullets following his brutal vengeance on the men that killed his master (in Fist of Legend Zhen’s death is implicitly faked). The story picks up soon after as the apparently still living Zhen joins other Chinese soldiers to aide the Allies in Europe during the first World War. Zhen secretly returns to China after the war, taking on the identity of a fallen comrade, and joins the anti-Japanese underground. Soon enough, Zhen is fighting the oncoming second Sino-Japanese War as a Robin Hood/Zorro/Batman-like masked champion of the people. Though I assume that fans versed in the character and television series will come away from the film with a much more complete understanding of the events (for better or worse), us newbies can still find satisfaction in that this particular telling works fine as a standalone. There are some callbacks to the end of Fist of Fury (I assume, having not seen the series), but these are replayed with enough clarity to appear as flashbacks rather than callbacks.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
The film opens with a Saving Private Ryan WWI battle sequence by way of John Woo and Tsui Hark that doesn’t quite add up to the breathless thing of beauty it means to, but does promise something more primal and unique from both director Andrew Lau and star Donnie Yen. Soon after it’s clear Legend of the Fist is actually just a reasonably potent mix of Lau’s (when did he stop going by Andy?) usual tragic gangster shtick, with a bit of Yen’s stoic hero shtick mixed in for flavour (not that Yen would stand out at all in any other Lau flick). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but I’ve personally found myself fatigued by such things for quite some time now. Visually there are elements worth celebrating. The period setting is colourfully utilized, and adds quite a bit of colourful flare, even teetering into Dick Tracy territory at its most joyful moments. But more often than not the droning, weak plot is just a limp bathroom break stuck between stunning action sequences. Despite some strong performances (Shu Qi and Anthony Wong both do very much with very little) I found it maintaining interest in the story positively exhausting. Lau and his screenwriters Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan (also producer) do best with the story’s most pulpy bits, but never find a balance between these, the continuing tale of Chen Zhen, and the historical framing. Most of the superhero and hardcore gangland stuff is delegated to all too brief montage, leaving merely the taste of something great that never quite comes to fruition. There’s a strange mix of too many cool and exciting elements here, and all the kung-fu infused war, gangster and superhero aspects sadly end up canceling each other out.

I’ve found myself pretty immune to Lau’s charms in the past, and mark myself as likely the only person alive that didn’t really like any of the Infernal Affairs movies, but I can’t deny that the former Won Kar-Wai, Ringo Lam and Sammo Hung cinematographer seems incapable of making an unattractive movie. I’d even hazard to assume this particularly grand action spectacle is his best looking flick to date. The production design, cinematography and use of colour all go a long way to cover up a general lack of intriguing goings-on. The opening war sequence is quite silly, but almost impossible to resist, and this has everything to do with the way Lau shoots it. The same goes for the fight sequences, which aren’t game changers, but slick, exciting, easy to discern mini-epics. Everything is also effectively brutal, and this tends to work best when Lau frames it in a slightly over-stylized comic book manner. Again, the idea of a serious pre-WWII, Shanghai-centric action film spiked with pulpy superhero traits sounds exciting, like a Chinese prequel to The Rocketeer, but Lau sits listlessly between these elements for too much of the film, and never fully commits to anything for more than a single sequence. The final act is mostly effective in its violent melodrama, in the same way all John Woo’s American films are not, and the final battles are almost worthy of both Bruce Lee/Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury and Gordon Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping’s Fist of Legend, even if they’re occasionally a bit too derivative.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Video


Following some iffy early releases Well Go USA keeps their streak of solid 1080p transfers flowing with what might be their strongest release yet. The image is often quite clean, and varies throughout depending on the intended effect. The war sequence is chunk of dark, grainy, Spielberg influenced blue and black, with sharp, almost surreal warm highlights around the German uniforms, and skin tones. Details here are sharper, especially in close-up, and minute contrasts are incredibly crisp. The ‘roaring ‘20s’ stuff is colourful, warm, clean and soft, with blued blacks, and beautiful colour separation. These scenes aren’t the sharpest things I’ve ever seen, but the vibrancy of the hues and complexity of the frame makes for a definitively DVD-unfriendly image. The war scenes do feature some minor edge enhancement, but nothing matching the occasionally grotesquery of the Ip Man disc, while the post-war scenes can suffer a bit of colour bleeding, occasionally out of place grain, and blocking blends in the deeper blacks. I also noticed some minor blurring and colour misalignment on the post-war scenes, but I’m thinking these are symptoms of the anamorphic lens effects, rather than transfer artefacts.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Audio


As has become the norm now for Well Go USA releases (thank goodness), this Blu-ray comes fitted with four audio track possibilities – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin, English, and stereo Mandarin and English. The system also defaults to the DTS-HD MA Mandarin, which is nice, because then you don’t have to waste precious seconds avoiding the terrible English dub, or the dull stereo mix. As stated above, this release opens big with a war sequence, and the sound mix is worthy of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (in terms of aural business, not necessarily mix quality). All five channels erupt with the busywork of firing guns, ricocheting bullets, and exploding buildings. Here the basics of dialogue and smaller, incidental effects. The quieter post-war scenes feature an effective share of strong ambience mostly in the form of music during the club sequences. City streets, however, do remain strangely silent for the most part. The fight scenes feature bodies flying through screen and crashing into off-stage props, and a building blows up about ever 20 minutes to extreme LFE effect. During the montage at the center of the film the music and effects seem to be at battle, sometimes entirely outweighing one another at seemingly random intervals, and the lip-sync on some of the Japanese actors is terrible. I’d be curious to know if these problems exist in the original mix or only here.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Extras


Disc one extras begin with two behind the scenes featurettes. The first, ‘Warzone’ (8:00, SD), follows the cast and crew as they shoot the opening war sequence, while the second, Casablanca (9:30, SD), is shot around the Shanghai soundstages. This is raw footage, with little context, but it does feature subtitles, and is impressive in revealing how much of the action and décor was shot without digital enhancement. Yuen, ever the renaissance man, appears to actually be playing his own piano part. He also hurts himself pretty badly right after announcing he’s going to at one point, which I found kind of funny. This disc also features the US and International trailers, along with trailers for other Well Go USA titles. Disc two, which is a standard DVD, and which only comes with this collector’s edition release, continues with six more behind the scenes featurettes – ‘Tianjin Street’ (5:30), ‘Market Place’ (5:30), ‘Newspaper Office’ (3:20), ‘Japanese Headquarters’ (3:00), ‘Student Movement’ (3:50) and ‘Hongkou Dojo’ (11:00). Besides further proof that Yuen is a physically amazing specimen (he did the running car jump without a line or trampoline), it shows us that he actually had a sizable role as director himself. Yuen isn’t only directing the action choreography, he’s actually directing actors, and occasionally telling Lau what’s what. Things are wrapped up with a rather long series of cast and crew interviews, including director Andrew Lau (16:00), co-writer/producer Gordon Chan (11:40), Donnie Yuen (9:20), Shu Qi (9:40), Anthony Wong (3:00), Huang Bo (5:20) and Kohata Ryuichi (4:00).

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Overall


Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen isn’t quite up to the task of walking into the footsteps of Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend, but it’s a decent updating of the Chen Zhen legend, and an occasionally effective piece of grand scale period filmmaking. Too often it slows to a crawl, and threatens to buckle under the weight of its dueling serious and pulpy tones, but it’s always good looking, and features a few genuinely exciting action scenes. The A/V quality is fantastic, and Well Go USA is officially on enough of a quality roll lately I’m willing to assume their releases will be impressive from here on out. The collector’s edition exclusive extras aren’t really entertaining or informative enough for me to recommend purchasing this more expensive set over the single disc edition.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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