This made for television remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury concerns a Chinese martial arts student who finds himself and his school abused by imperialistic Japanese in Shanghai. After his master is murdered by Japanese plotting to invade China, Chen Jun seeks justice for his school and for his countrymen.
Western audiences finally get a taste of what Donnie Yen was cooking on Hong Kong television in the mid ’90′s. Unfortunately, it’s only a sample platter and not everything will please the palette, but the plethora of tasty side dishes should sate the most demanding appetites.
Putting not-so-cleaver culinary analogies aside, Donnie Yen’s Fist of Fury television series gets the treatment from Tai Seng in this two hour movie which edits down the second 15 episodes from the series originally aired in 1995. As you may have guessed, this is a television series adapted from Bruce Lee’s 1972 production of Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection). Yen was offered the opportunity to star in and choreograph a 30 episode series chronicling the life of the fictional Chen Jun created by Lo Wei and portrayed by Bruce Lee. This character was the imaginary student of real life kung fu master Fok Yuen Gaap who founded the Jin Wu school of martial arts and who really died at the hands of Japanese after attempting to unite the Chinese in opposition. The first 15 episodes of the series created a fictional backstory that traced a history of Japanese/Chinese relations and the founding of Fok Yuen Gaap as a central character in the events which would eventually lead to the Japanese invasion of China.
In this summarized film, we see Fok, played by Hong Kong veteran Eddy Ko unite the various martial arts schools in Shanghai. Then we’re introduced to his leading student Chen Jun (Donnie Yen) who has fallen in love with the daughter of Shanghai’s leading Japanese official. At the time, which would have been in the early 1930′s, Shanghai was divided into zones controlled by various foreign powers that included the Japanese and the native Chinese living in these zones had few if any rights. The Japanese official sends men to kill Chen, but they fail and after further confrontations Chen is essentially kicked out of Shanghai and forbidden to see the girl he loves. At this time, the Japanese devise a plan to get rid of Fok who has great influence in Shanghai and supports the anti-Japanese movement. They poison him and make it look like he was defeated in a martial arts match.
At this point, those familiar with Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury will recognize the remaining events that include Chen’s storming of the Japanese martial arts school after they are given a sign that reads “Sick Men of Asia.” Chen eventually defeats the pompous leaders of the Japanese school and in a twist, even defeats the Japanese official who happens to be a kendo expert, plus his two sons. His fiery temper and blatant actions lead him to become martyr for Chinese independence just as Japan is preparing to invade.
Having listened to Donnie’s own opinion of his work only reinforces my summation that this series was rushed and under-funded. In all fairness, a review of the series is not possible in this two hour format. But as a stand alone film, Fist of Fury pales in comparison to Lee’s film and hardly stands on its own. The story is choppy, the acting is decent but impossible to become immersed in, and the worst part is that the action scenes are severely under-cranked. Donnie even admits to not even bothering to choreograph a number of the fights. With only a few experienced stuntmen to work with and little time, many of the fights are reduced to Donnie swinging his nunchaku wildly while his opponents do the same with their weapons.
The real shame about both this Tai Seng edition is that the story should have taken center stage. Here was an opportunity to portray not only the events leading to the Japanese invasion, but also the relevance of martial arts philosophy and Chinese nationalism. By cramming 15 hours into 2, you get nothing more than a scattered collage of mediocre drama and bad choreography.
In regards to Donnie’s reconstruction of Bruce Lee’s role as Chen Jun, there appears to be a concerted effort by Donnie to portray not so much the image of Bruce Lee, but the heart of Bruce Lee. In other words, we should expect a Chen Jun as a boiling pot of anger and energy that explodes on screen with righteous fury. I’ll give Donnie this much; he looks fast, he martial arts skill is outstanding, he’s got an edge to his personality, and he’s intense, but its all smoke and mirrors when it comes to replicating Bruce Lee. The bottom line is that there are few people in the world with the combination of intensity, martial skill, tenacity and deadly looks that Bruce Lee had. With all due respect to Donnie Yen and Jet Li who stepped into Lee’s shoes for Fist of Legend, the man cannot and should not be duplicated.
This truncated Tai Seng release is somewhat of a disappointment although seeing the entire series might be worthwhile. No doubt, the story would be much more engaging and the production values could be better appreciated. Although I’m not too familiar with Hong Kong television production, the sets and location shoots are fairly impressive. Donnie manages to recreate a wide assortment of fights, many of which include references to Once Upon a Time in China II or even some of Bruce Lee’s other films such as Way of the Dragon.
What I really enjoyed about this release were the two audio commentaries Tai Seng wisely added. One features Donnie Yen himself in an interview format with Cray Greed who sounds like he’s affiliated with Tai Seng. The other commentary features Robin Shou (Mortal Kombat) along with Tai Seng’s product marketing manager and Cray Greed again. Although its been 7 years since Donnie did the series, he manages to offer some genuine insights into what its like to create a television series in Hong Kong. Donnie exhibits both pride in his work and a sense of humor about some of the show’s faults and comments on everything from his method to fight direction to his impression of Jet Li’s performance in Fist of Legend. The other commentary offers more objective insight into the history surrounding the series, about the other actors, and Chinese custom. Robin Shou provides a good amount of levity throughout.
As a whole, this version of Fist of Fury is more of a treat for Donnie Yen fans than anything else. This series was a real labor of love for Donnie and despite its flaws, it has merit on the basis that it expands on the original story by filling in the history and motivations of the main characters. Even in this cropped edition, you get a better understanding of the events surrounding central story of Chen Jun’s search for justice. The action scenes are hit and miss, showcasing both Donnie’s strengths as an innovator and the show’s limited resources. Although Donnie defended his use of under-cranking, I found it to be distracting. Lastly, the extras add value for hardcore genre fans while general audiences will likely have little interest in this release.
Donnie Yen • Fist of Fury (1995) • Genre: Kung Fu