Chen Zhen, a Chinese film folk hero whose vocation is bucking off the yoke of Japanese imperialism, has a legendary pedigree: Bruce Lee originated the role (Fist of Fury, 1973) and Jet Li honorably revived it (Fist of Legend, 1994). Less famously, Zhen was played by Donnie Yen in a 1995 ATV series. Since then, Yen, a legendary fight choreographer and actor (who bears a passing resemblance to Tiger Woods), has become a leading man in his own right. Most familiar to U.S. audiences from his Ip Man films, Yen again plays China's patron stud here, standing up against international bullies. After single-handedly winning World War I in a false hope-inspiring prologue, Zhen returns to '20s Shanghai, a set that looks at once opulent and cheap, to hang around the Casablanca Club in a white tux and romance ever-soused chanteuse Kiki (Shu Qi, the best thing here) while organizing resistance activity on the sly. Anyone who's seen a martial-arts picture expects a certain amount of thumb-twiddling between the big numbers, but director Andrew Lau's handling of exposition is markedly poor, distended with rubbish plotlines, flashy sadism, and overwrought jingoism. With Yen's henchmen enemies flying aside in flocks, as if shot from a pneumatic cannon, even the few-and-far-apart fights prove muddled affairs, barely worth the YouTube cherry-picking.
Yen as the martial-arts hero.
Runs at Grand Illusion, Fri., April 29–Thurs., May 5. Rated R. 105 minutes.