At this point in cinema's history, I feel like a lot of the complaints both critics and audiences make about a lack of originality are kind of missing the point. To begin with (and depending on who you ask), there are only so many kinds of stories that can be told, regardless of the details that distinguish similar ones from one another. But more importantly, what people are typically focusing on is what happens in these stories, rather than how they are told, meaning how creatively, with how much technical competence, or even who's telling them, all of which are the real measures that distinguish remakes from originals, sequels from set-ups, and generally speaking, bad movies of almost any genre from good ones. And this is especially true in dedicated genre films, where quite literally the difference between a triumph and a piece of trash is who stars in it, the name of the person behind the camera, or the matter of degrees in which one movie differs in the way it does the otherwise exact same thing as every one before it.
By all superficial measures, 'Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen' is entirely unoriginal – a remake of a story of a mythic Chinese hero told at least two times before in what are arguably both considered "definitive" film versions. And yet, without even considering the likelihood that many viewers haven't seen Bruce Lee's 'The Chinese Connection' or Jet Li's 'Fist of Legend,' the film feels fresh, exciting, modern and yes, original, thanks to the dexterous efforts of director Andy Lau ('Infernal Affairs') and star Donnie Yen ('Hero') to sufficiently evoke its predecessors and yet forage into new territory in terms of both form and content.
Yen plays Chen Zhen, a legendary soldier and martial artist who fakes his death after single-handedly saving a phalanx of soldiers during World War I. Assuming the identity of a fallen comrade, he reinvents himself as a Shanghai playboy and becomes partners with a local nightclub owner, which allows him to keep an eye on the Japanese military leaders who harass and blackmail the Chinese locals. After a Japanese general publicly issues a list of names of Chinese citizens who are sentenced to death, Chen dons the costume of a matinee hero and begins fighting back; but when the Japanese intensify their efforts to suppress Chinese opposition, Chen is forced to confront not only the trigger-happy soldiers who preside over Shanghai, but the Japanese master who killed his mentor.
Admittedly, my first reaction after seeing 'Legend of the Fist' was to describe it as "'The Chinese Connection' with the score to 'Batman Begins,'" which, derivative or not, sounds pretty cool. But Donnie Yen brings a unique fortitude, as well as palpable melancholy, to the role of Chen Zhen, both of which gives the film dramatic gravitas and makes it considerably more than the sum total of kicks and punches choreographed in its amazing fight scenes. Yen, glistening and chiseled even at 48, not only beats the living hell out of any- and everyone who crosses his path, he communicates emotional drive, and a seriousness of purpose, giving the action sequences dramatic tension and a sense of payoff that sometimes fizzles out in Hong Kong films, where there's so much choreography that it becomes blinding, and then numbing.
That said, there's a lot of plot, and in between its mouth-dropping opening and stunning, cathartic finale, there are probably a few more scenes of political positioning and debate than are probably necessary – even if you're invested in the story, which I was. But I also can't remember the last time I got as excited (as I did here) when an actor, bruised and bloodied from battle, removed his shirt in order to prepare for a final showdown, and that's a testament to the pacing and momentum of the narrative, which makes gloriously propagandistic underdogs of the Chinese, culminating in an opportunity for revenge and triumph that is literally worth cheering. (It's also at that point where even those with typewritten lists of man-crushes will strike through one of their existing favorites and add Yen, a great actor and impressive physical specimen rolled into one.)
Of course, plenty of folks (myself included) will have seen both 'The Chinese Connection' and 'Fist of Legend,' and comparisons to them will inevitably be drawn. But like with all great movies, originality isn't necessarily in the concept, it's in the execution, and director Lau bolsters Yen's imposing performance by giving the film a glossy, operatic sheen that lends its story both emotional and visceral weight. But ultimately, there are less unflattering observations to make than to say that their film is similar to those that preceded it, especially since they are widely considered classics of the genre. Because 'Legend of the Fist: The Legend of Chen Zhen' requires nothing short of legendary execution to live up to the promise of its title, much less its cinematic legacy, and it's a film that brilliantly makes the most of those expectations, and then leaves the rest for history to decide.