Martial-arts film fans know the answer: He’s a fictional folk hero played by Bruce Lee in 1972’s “Fist of Fury,” then Jet Li in 1994’s “Fist of Legend,” and now Donnie Yen in this, although the movies have no real relationship to one another — well, other than being cool, of course.
If anything, “Legend of the Fist” will remind viewers visually of two other films: “Black Mask,” the high-kicking, Hong Kong superhero effort that helped lift Li to American stardom back in 1999, and “The Green Hornet,” in which Li once was attached to play Kato. Really, with only slight differences, the masked characters in each look alike.
Although “Fist” is set in 1925 Shanghai, its central character dons a costume that wouldn’t be out of place in many movies set in the modern day. After fighting and presumed dead in World War I, Chen Zhen (Yen, “Ip Man 2″) goes undercover among the snazzy jazz nightclubs — where the onstage entertainment is as elaborate as Busby Berkeley musicals — in order to topple the mob from within.
Outside, he peels off his pencil-thin mustache and, taking a cue from the current featured attraction at the neighboring movie theater, becomes a superhero called the Masked Warrior, a symbol of Japanese resistance, so he can combat evil externally as well.
Part war epic, part gangster pic, part comic book, “Fist” wants to be all things to all audiences, but only truly comes alive when Yen proves his yen’s worth in the wirework-enabled fight scenes. Choreographed by Yen himself, they are thrilling.
Director Andrew Lau (“Initial D” and the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, the first chapter of which was remade as Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed”) gives the period piece a tangible look of elegance, akin to Jackie Chan’s “Miracles,” minus that 1989 epic’s bloated running time.
Lau also has a rather special effect in Shu Qi (“The Transporter”), who’s radiant as the nightclub singer who catches Zhen’s eye, and ours. (Opera-glove fetishists, be at the ready!) Her natural ease in front of the camera — coupled with Yen’s considerable charisma and, yes, ass-kicking abilities — make you forgive the more talky parts involving the unification of China or something-rather. —Rod Lott