It's been a while since Wai-Keung Lau released a crowd-pleaser with Western potential. His Infernal Affairs trilogy made a big impact, yet after these films he somehow slipped back into HK anonymity. Those of you expecting a new gangster epic should take notice, Wai-Keung Lau is a diverse little devil who handles many different genres. His latest is a true Donnie Yen (14 Blades) action fest set in mid-20th century Shanghai. Talk about a change of scenery.
I've been seeing quite some Wai-Keung Lau films these last couple of weeks and while most of them are not good enough to warrant a review on this blog, his full body of work is proof of his diversity and ability to learn from mistakes. Earlier - often failed - experiments usually pay off in later films, The Legend of Chen Zhen [Jing Wu Feng Yun: Chen Zhen] isn't any different. Compare the martial arts in this film to Lau's The Duel and you'll see what I mean.
Of course Lau can count on Donnie Yen to do most of the dirty work here, though I'm sure Yen didn't have to think twice before taking on the role of Chen Zhen. A fictional character that started his movie career being portrayed by Bruce Lee (Fist Of Fury). Later Jet Li would follow in his footsteps (Fist of Legend), now it's Yen's turn to be immortalized as one of Hong Kong's biggest fictional heroes. Not a bad reference to put on your resume.
While the tales of Chen Zhen don't follow a fixed pattern, they usually end up with a clash between Zhen and the Japanese oppressor. Lau's version isn't any different as the Japanese military is the obvious bad guy in this tale of revenge and rebellion. Yen is the absolute hero of the film, battling his way to hordes of adversaries, though he is by no means infallible. On the other hand, Yen seems to have some extreme athletic capabilities giving him a good edge on the competition.
Visually there is plenty to enjoy here. There's no doubt the budget was pretty high for HK standards, Lau makes perfect use of all the possibilities this creates. Some superb set pieces, lush decorations and strong and agile camera work bring the Shanghai of last century to life. The action scenes are impressive (though there's a little speed up noticeable in some shots) while the color corrections lend the film lots of extra atmosphere. Good stuff.
The soundtrack is decent with some traditional music and a couple of performance songs. It seems you really can't do a Shanghai flick without them. Nothing too great or special but since this is basically an action flick it suffices. Acting is overall strong though with Yen kicking ass, good supporting roles for Wong and Qi and some nice cameos (Shawn Yue). Of course Hong Kong has a pretty large pool of quality actors and Lau has no trouble hooking them for his films.
Lau's latest bears a lot of influences. The Shanghai setting reminds me of Tan's Blood Brother, the rebellion aspect of Bodyguards and Assassins and Yen's heroic costume looks like its stolen from Lee's Black Mask. But these are just minor details as the film never pretends to be anything more than a heroic action flick. The middle part is a little overblown and long-winding, but apart from that there's little doubt about Lau's intentions.
People hoping for a tight blend of all the different aspects on display won't be fully satisfied. Lau plays all these influences as if they were mere decorations as he keeps returning to the core of his film: Donnie Yen kicking some Japanese ass. Luckily the action scenes are strong enough so it doesn't become bothersome, but make sure you don't go in with the wrong expectations. There's no remarkable drama, good storytelling or moody crime ethics going on, it's really all about the action.
The Legend Of Chen Zhen is a slick action flick that does his fictional hero justice. I wasn't a big fan of the previous instalments but Lau replaces the more bitter atmosphere with a lighter, faster and more kick-ass martial arts injection. Great production values, some slick action scenes and a nice cast turn this film into an enjoyable little blockbuster, which can be refreshing in itself from time to time.