film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The Best Of Donnie Yen

To celebrate Ip Man superstar Donnie Yen’s latest release, Kung Fu Killer which is in cinemas now and and arrives on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms from 23rd February, the team at easternKicks.com pick out some of their favourite scenes of Yen’s from more than 30 years of starring in action films.

1. Drunken Tai Chi (1984)

Donnie Yen’s earliest appearance as a lead star teams him with legendary action director Yuen Woo-Ping for a film that attempted to recapture the popularity of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. The finale of the film comes as Ching Do (Yen) is facing down his opponent, as ready as he’ll ever be. His master, the local puppeteer (Yuen Cheung-yan), has prepared him to fight opponents while at a disadvantage, and this assassin (Yuen Shun-Yi) has already killed his father and adopted brother. Despite having the upper hand a lot of time, the assassin is sporting with Ching. Initially, Ching is on the ropes. The assassin is just too quick. Every hit Ching lands, his nemesis lands five and they all hurt.

Brawling from his master’s front yard into the house, the two combatants continue to rain blows and kicks until by accident, they are both blinded by dust. Now Ching’s training comes into practice and he begins to “hear” the assassin as he stumbles around the room. Using his hands and feet, pushing around the room with his Tai Chi, Ching pushes back the assassin’s attacks and feints until it comes down to who’ll make the final, fatal strike. In the end, it’s Ching who prevails but not without costing the assassin his life. Exhausted, Ching takes his rest. (PO)

2. Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China re-popularised the martial art movie genre when released in 1991. Real life folk hero Wong Fei-Hung was contemporised by a then twenty eight-year-old Jet Li. The amazing choreography and nationalistic themes struck a chord with local audiences and Hark explored these themes further in 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II. Foreign influence is violently rejected by the xenophobic White Lotus society, while Wong Fei-Hung aides a rebellion led by Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China’s founder. Donnie Yen plays a British officer attempting to extinguish the unrest. Wong’s acquaintance with the rebels puts Yen and Li on a collision course.

Choreographed once again by the great Yuen Woo-ping, Yen and Li’s final battle is a spectacular clash. The inventive sequence appropriates the surroundings into the action. Utilising weightlessness (a feat carried over from Chinese folklore) the opponents fight up a structure made of bamboo and duel with makeshift staffs. Yen also uses a length of wet cloth, which when spun with ferocity mimics a staff’s power and can smash stone. Yen and Li perform the complex scene with the fluid execution of two masters. An unforgettable performance and all time Hong Kong cinema highlight. (KH)

3. Iron Monkey (1993)

This time playing Wong Fei-hung’s father Wong Kei-ying, he teams up with the titular Iron Monkey/Dr Yang (Yu Rong-Guang) to take down an evil, corrupt official. They must fight on wooden poles, balancing precariously whilst dishing out deadly moves. The real snag is that everything is on fire below them, including the poles! Yen shows off his nimble, quick-fire kicks as he initially runs from pole to pole toward the villain. The lack of any CGI only heightens the sense of danger as they exchange blows, the poles wobbling each time a foot lands on one. Yen shows his acrobatic skills off as he does the splits between two of the poles, hanging on for dear life. The fight becomes increasingly fantastic as the villain starts swinging a fiery pole causing Yu to fall perilously close to the fire, only being saved after Yen swings his foot to pull him up. Soon after poles begin to be kicked at each other and as the burning poles collapse, Yu perches on Yen’s shoulders. As their pole snaps in two, they end up balancing on it horizontally, one on each end! Donnie kicks his side down to send Yu flying towards the villain, who, whilst distracted, Yen fly-kicks into the flaming abyss. (TC)

4. Legend of the Wolf (1997)

His debut as director (not to mention acting as co-writer and producer), Yen stars as an amnesiac assassin looking for his lost love. Told mainly through flashbacks, there’s plenty of action in the first hour as our killer travels the land looking for his lady whilst fighting off a band of villains. But really it’s the last thirty minutes, where the film turns into one long action sequence that kicks the whole endeavour up a notch. En masse the baddies attack a village that’s been sheltering our hero, resulting in a drawn out brawl where Yen punches, kicks and chops his enemies before bowling them over ten-pin style. Added to this, there’s still time for some one-on-one brawling in the surrounding forest and rivers, where the blows fall so fast they can barely be seen and the trees quake with their force, before good can finally triumph. (AS)

5. Hero (2002)

Having lost to Jet Li previously in Once Upon A Time In China II, Donnie Yen squares up for another go. Early on in Zhang Yimou’s epic wuxia, Hero, Jet Li’s nameless swordsman confronts Donnie Yen’s spearman, ‘Sky’. Li needs Donnie’s head in order to help shuffle within assassination distance of the Emperor. A group of lawmen fail to arrest the noble Sky at a chess house. The action is accompanied by a blind musician and the only sounds are the emotive strings of the instrument and the heightened clang of sword and spear. The fight is brutal and yet tranquil; lighting fast cutting punctuated with slow motion close ups. The saps never had a chance.

Nameless steps in and after a quick tussle both calmly opt to fight the rest of the battle in their mind; each imagine a barrage of strikes and counter strikes with the blind guquin player matching the pace of the action, or is it the other way round? Ching Siu-tung’s spinning, dance-like choreography has never looked better and the audio design, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, feels ‘real’, giving weight and power to the brutal yet graceful display. The imagined finally becomes real and Nameless charges in, time slowing dramatically, Sky spins his spear but he’s too slow. Jet Li has won. Better luck next time Donnie. Magnificent.  (AG)

6. Twins Effect II (2004)

Sometimes it’s all in the cameos, those unexpected bonus bits that may not make a film salvageable, but definitely make a scene worth watching. In the early 2000s Yen made a concerted effort to break into Hollywood that resulted in little more than a handful brief appearances. At least in Highlander: Endgame, Yen was obviously left to direct his own action with a scene better than anything else in the entire movie. Sadly, the same wasn’t true of Guillermo del Toro on Blade II.

Yen had already acted as co-director and choreographer on the original Twins Effect movie; an extremely successful cash-in on the popularity of Cantopop group The Twins (otherwise known as Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – no, they not related) casting them as Buffy style vampire hunters. A sequel in name only, Twins Effect II was a big-budget spectacle that failed to even set Twins fans alight. This period swordplay piece inexplicably, but delightfully, features a cameo battle between Yen and Jackie Chan. It’s an fx-laden wirework-fu face off that works thanks to its frenetic energy and seeing the skills and talent of these two legends face off on screen. The best three minutes of the entire film. (AS/AH)

7. SPL (Kill Zone) (2005)

If Yen’s career had still not quite reached the heights you might have expected, it would be the first of five collaborations with director Wilson Yip that would culminate with the Ip Man films that would finally put him on the map. Yen stars Ma Kwun (Donnie Yen), a police officer assigned to replace Inspector Chan (Simon Yam) when he retires. Chan has dedicated his career to bringing down ruthless triad boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung) by any means necessary. Taking classic Hong Kong themes of blurred principles between both side, the title Sha Po Lang refers to three words derived from Chinese astrology that each represent a different star, capable of good or evil depending on their position in the heavens.

The film builds to a finale between Yen and Hung, gloriously living up to his role as the films villain; but it’s the penultimate fight between Yen and henchman Wong Po, played by Wu Jing – a talented martial artist who himself has never fully fulfilled his promise – that stands out. It’s an intense duel as Wu plays knife specialist against Yen having just a police baton that from all accounts was just as gruelling to shoot as it is to watch in the humid, sweltering real location of a Hong Kong back alley. Quite incredible, you will be exhausted just watching it. (AH)

8. Ip Man 2 (2010)

It was Ip Man that really made Yen a true international success, playing the Wing Chun grandmaster who would go on to teach a young Bruce Lee martial arts. It wasn’t the first time Yen had stepped into Bruce’s shoes. In the mid 90s Yen had played Chen Zhen in TV series Fist Of Fury, based on the Bruce Lee film of the same name. In some territories, Legend Of The Wolf had even been retagged The New Big Boss.

In Ip Man, Yen’s fight with karate master General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) both echoes Chen Zhen’s fights with the Japanese in Fist Of Fury, and the fantastic showdown with Chuck Norris that ends Way Of The Dragon. That nationalistic tone continues in Ip Man 2, where this time Yip Man faces up against colonial rule in the ring with boxer Taylor “The Twister” Milos (played by the late Darren Shahlavi who tragically died earlier this year). Far from the elegance of Yen’s usual martial arts fights, this is just plain brutal, hinting that he might not win against Twisters sheer muscle. There’s hardly any subtlety about who Ip is really fighting for. (AH)

9. Wu Xia (2011)

Physical skills and high-class choreography yes, but Donnie Yen has struggled to be considered a great actor. He simply doesn’t have the knockabout charm of his peers Jackie Chan and Jet Li, potentially explaining what held him back in Hollywood. His eponymous turn in Ip Man helped change that, showing a side of Yen that we had not seen before. It turns out, given the chance and the material, the guy could actually act. This was fully realised a couple of years later with Peter Chan’s post-modern take on the kung fu genre – Wu Xia (released in the US and UK as the edited version Dragon). Yen holds his own against acting luminaries Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) and Takeshi Kanishiro (Chunking Express). His role as Liu Jinxi is a study in suppressed anger and the burden of guilt.

Here it’s not a fight scene – though the film does have some wonderfully filmed action – but when Liu, surrounded by his past, chooses to literally break ties with it, severing his own left arm. It’s a shocking moment (and a clever in-joke to Asian film fans, recalling the One Armed Swordsman played by Jimmy Wang who plays Yen’s Father in this film), not just because of the act itself, but the audience realise it is rendering him almost useless for the concluding confrontation. (SP)

10. Special ID (2013)

Again a mark of his great talent as a choreographer, Yen hardly appears in the first part of the finale of Special ID. As we see undercover cop Dragon Chan (Yen) and his mainland police colleague Fang Jing (Jing Tian) in hot pursuit of villain Sunny, played by one of Hong Kong’s favourite bad guys Andy On with a disposition that’s anything but. It’s Jing who manages to get herself in Sunny’s speeding car as the pair fight while in motion and Chan tries desperately to catch up. As the car chase leads to a bridge under construction and nowhere else to go, Chan and Sunny finally get a chance to battle it out ‘mano a mano’. (AH)

Those are just a few of our favourite Donnie Yen scenes and Kung Fu Killer is jam-packed with many more that will not disappoint. Yen stars as a convicted martial arts instructor helping the police catch a serial killer targeting martial arts masters, one duel at a time.

The easternKicks.com team: Phillip O’Connor; Kelan Headley; Tom Cunliffe; Alexis Sheftz; Anthony Gates; Stephen Palmer; managing editor Andrew Heskins.

KUNG FU KILLER is now showing at cinemas and arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms from 23rd February, courtesy of Signature Entertainment

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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