Donnie Yen Capsule Reviews
Drunken Tai Chi (Yuen Woo-ping, 1984) — December 12, 2017
Yuen Woo-ping spent the better part of a decade trying to make Donnie Yen a star, beginning with this period non-specific kung fu comedy. Donnie plays a badass rich kid who drives a bully insane with fireworks (in self-defense of course), which leads the bully’s father to hire an assassin to kill Donnie, his beloved brother, and their father. Donnie escapes and is taken in by a puppeteer and his wife, both of whom teach Donnie essential lessons about Tai Chi, such that he’s able to defeat the assassin and the bully’s father.
The film’s darker elements don’t mesh at all with the its essential goofiness, even by the loose standards of Hong Kong tonal coherence. Supporting actors like Lydia Shum, as the wife, and Yuen’s brothers Yat-chor (as Donnie’s brother), Cheung-yan (as the puppeteer), and Shun-yi (as the assassin) are all nicely developed, with the killer given a weird backstory as a mute single-father who loves building toys which makes his single-minded obsession with murdering Donnie and his family all the more confounding. But Donnie is the real showcase here, demonstrating his impressive set of muscles and athletic skill, and even getting a chance to breakdance in disguise as a puppet, looking ahead to Yuen’s next stab at making him a star, the modern-day breakdancing comedy Mismatched Couples.
Tiger Cage (Yuen Woo-ping, 1988) — January 2, 2014
Yuen Woo-ping directing a hyperbolic modern cop-corruption movie, with a remarkable cast that includes Jacky Cheung, Do-Do Cheng, Ng Man-tat, Donnie Yen, and Simon Yam. It opens with a crazy chase, then settles down for a party. At this party, where the whole cop team playfully bonds, one of them announces he’s retiring. Not only that, but he’s also getting married. And he’s just been told he has a heart condition and should avoid strenuous activity. He’s thus thrice marked for death by the movie cliché gods. The team then seeks revenge for his murder, circumventing normal police procedure and “laws” both in pursuit of the crooks and because half of them are actually crooks anyway. The whole damn system’s out of order.
Yuen’s stunt team does a great job of making Jacky Cheung look like he can fight (imdb thinks Donnie doubled for him, which would make sense). It’s great to see that Simon Yam, at this early stage in his career, is already fully Simon Yam.
In the Line of Duty 4 (Yuen Woo-ping, 1989) — December 20, 2013
So apparently this is Yes, Madam 4, after In the Line of Duty III was Yes, Madam 2. I don’t know what happened to Yes, Madam 3, I think it was Magnificent Warriors (Royal Warriors being either In the Line of Duty or In the Line of Duty 2, depending on who you ask). Anyway, Cynthia Khan returns (as a different character), playing a Hong Kong cop working with a couple of Seattle cops to capture drug dealers. One of the cops is a very young Donnie Yen, who gets a great cocky introduction and plays a dick for the first half of the movie. The other is Michael Wong, apparently back from the dead after Royal Warriors, again being obnoxious guy, but this time it works better because he’s the bad guy. The first section of the film is ostensibly shot in Seattle, but it’s pretty obviously Vancouver. I guess it had to be Seattle because the plot of the film positions the CIA as the villains, selling drugs to fund their covert activities in Nicaragua, balancing the left/right conspiracy axis after the left-wing Red Army terrorists of In the Line of Duty III. Note that when the final villain gets it, he ends up draped in a giant American flag, albeit one that only has stars on one side.
The great Yuen Woo-ping directs, and as you’d expect the fight scenes are terrific. From a Yakima Canutt/Raiders of the Lost Ark homage with Khan on a truck, to a wild motorcycle chase with Donnie, to a brutal elevator fight between Khan and Blonde Kickboxer Woman to the climactic showdown between Donnie and Black Guy with Muscles. The film is thankfully shorn of ‘girls can’t be cops’ police station scenes, though there is plenty of police brutality (especially from Donnie, who spends the first half of the film beating up Yuen Yat-chor (Woo-ping’s brother and a choreographer himself), who would be his star witness if he’d stop menacing him long enough to listen).
Butterfly & Sword (Michael Mak, 1993) – March 28, 2022
Five minutes into this Michelle Yeoh makes fun of Tony Leung for having a small dick.
Directed by Michael Mak, the man who brought us Sex and Zen. But the action is by Ching Siu-tung and it's entirely in the wirefu style of his Swordsman movies: people flying around, heads flying too. In the first fight, Tony uses a bow to fire his sword at his enemies. Later, Michelle uses her oversized sleeves as a bow to fire spears made of further sleeve material as well as Tony himself. It's unclear if this version of the jianghu has developed arrow technology.
Based on a novel by Gu Long, possibly the same source as Chor Yuen's 1970s classic Killer Clans. Tony and Michelle are assassins hired by a eunuch to eliminate a rival wuxia clan that apparently poses a threat to the emperor. Mak doesn't seem the least bit interested in that, however, devoting almost all the space between Ching's action sequences to the heroes' romantic lives. For it seems that while Donnie Yen loves Michelle, Michelle loves Tony, who in turn loves Joey Wong, who loves him back.
Joey has left the jianghu, and thinks Tony has too, and there might be some kind of allegory there about wanting to but failing to leave the martial world behind when one has the chance, but honestly it's all lost in a film that feels like it was sliced in half like one of its many, many doomed extras.
Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping, 1993) — January 20, 2016
“Politics is like a dream: don’t take it too seriously and you’ll be fine.”
“A man should be as strong as steel. A man should shed blood, not tears.”
Added June 20, 2019:
The first time I saw this the only way it was available to me was the butchered early 2000s Miramax version, but now I’ve got a lovely restoration on BluRay from Eureka so not everything in the world is getting worse.
Added June 28, 2019:
Spinning off the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series (on which Yuen worked as an action coordinator), in which Jet Li played real-life folk hero Wong Fei-Hung as he battled the forces of Western Imperialism and Eastern Superstition as a kind of avatar of Sun Yat-sen style rational nationalism, Iron Monkey serves as a prequel. We meet Wong as a child, played by thirteen-year-old wushu champion Angie Tsang, as he and his father, Wong Kei-ying, played by Donnie Yen, visit a town and become embroiled in what is essentially the plot of an old Zorro episode. A masked bandit named Iron Monkey is stealing from the corrupt ministers and gangsters who rule the town and distributing the loot to the poor and needy. The Wongs get caught up in the government crackdown (because Kei-ying can fight he’s considered a potential Iron Monkey) while befriending the local doctor (Yu Rongguang), who is in fact the eponymous hero. Brisk and tightly plotted, with tons of great fights and just the right amount of humor and melodrama, Iron Monkey is Yuen’s most accomplished film. It is the one where his cavalier disregard for coherence in acting and plotting is least felt, along with two other films he made right around the same time, 1993’s The Tai Chi Master, with Jet Li, and 1994’s Wing Chun, with Michelle Yeoh. Iron Monkey was eventually released in the early 2000s by Miramax, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which Yuen had choreographed). But in doing so they edited it for tone and speed to fit more conventional American ideas of “realism,” altered the subtitles to depoliticize it, and re-recorded the score to match the style of Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger music, in the process eliminating Iron Monkey’s use of the iconic Wong Fei-hung theme, divorcing the film from its intended context as part of a larger heroic story.
Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-ping, 1994) — June 15, 2013
Feminism, kung fu style. A world where everyone, even the love of her life Donnie Yen, mistakes Michelle Yeoh for a man. Where her crafty businesswoman aunt, the delightfully named Abacus Fong, has to trick a man into sleeping with her (which works even though she apparently smells really bad, the result of a lifetime of eating only stinky tofu). Where Catherine Hung’s Charmy, the lust object for an entire town and the local bandit gang, sighs about how as just a pretty woman she’s useless without a man to care for her.
In order to defeat the bad guy and earn his respect, Yeoh must first dress like a woman, then take away his giant spear. As a result of her victory, he has to call her ‘Mommy’.
Shaw Brothers icon Cheng Pei-pei plays Yeoh’s master. She advises her that small, subtle movements can contain great power. This knowledge is essential for her to defeat the bandit leaders Flying Monkey and Flying Chimpanzee and their apelike notions of gender roles.
Ballistic Kiss (Donnie Yen, 1998) — April 27, 2015
Oh, Donnie. Donnie, Donnie, Donnie.
No no no no no.
Flash Point (Wilson Yip, 2007) — November 18, 2014
About 20 minutes into the climax of the movie, after he has been beating the hell out of a guy (and being equally beaten in return) for some time, Donnie Yen, for the first time in the film, takes his jacket off, as if to say “OK, now I’m really gonna get violent.” He does.
By the numbers cop/Triad movie. Donnie’s the cop who breaks all the rules, Louis Koo is his partner, undercover among ethnically outsider criminals (Vietnamese in this case), on the eve of the Handover. The details of the criminal organization, the investigation, the legal ramifications of anything, are basically ignored, as is pretty much anything else outside of the basic narrative tissue connecting the action sequences. Yen’s previous collaboration with director Wilson Yip, SPL: Sha Po Lang was a meditation on fathers and sons as much as a cops-and-gangsters story, but there’s none of that here. Instead, it’s Donnie leaping from one brutal fight to the next, culminating in the final, MMA-derived (lots of Muay Thai elbows and knees and wrestling holds) bout of fisticuffs.
The film opens and closes with Donnie, who has consistently brutalized suspects on- and off-camera, being asked if he’d ever assaulted an innocent person. His non-answer would be telling, but these questions seem like they come out of another movie, one where it would even be possible for Donnie Yen to be wrong about anything.
Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008) – April 4, 2019
Might be best considered as an action film with no relation to actual history or reality. That solves the fact that it’s wildly inaccurate and often nonsensical, but only makes its more puffed up pretensions (the score, the shift to muted colors once the war begins) more irritating.
Turning Ip Man into a cross between Wong Fei-hung and Huo Yuanjia was I guess some kind of a smart idea, in that it allowed the industry to recycle a bunch of old ideas (and Mainland-market friendly nationalism) under a new name.
Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip, 2010) — August 22, 2013
I’m still not comfortable with the glossy digital plasticity of the 21st century kung fu film, but this one has some nice moments in its first half, following Ip as he slowly struggles to build his school and a reputation for himself as an exile in post-Civil War Hong Kong. Sammo Hung plays his rival, a somewhat corrupted Hung Gar master with some bad apple students and a soft heart. And then the movie turns into Rocky IV.
I’m not quite a huge Donnie Yen fan, yet. He’s a great martial arts performer, of course, and he imbues Ip with the right amount of quiet dignity, despite his slight frame (first Sammo and then the British simply tower over him). I wish the film had more of that understated quality. Instead the drama is wildly overblown, with the villainous British boxer unbelievably cruel and racist and menacing, a snarling mass of slow motion muscle pummeling the audience as much as any unfortunate Chinese man that gets in his way. Ip seems like a swell guy who lived through some exciting times, I would hope a film adaptation of his life would reflect in its dramatic approach the moderation of his philosophy of life. We’ll see what Wong Kar-wai does with it.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 2010) — May 13, 2014
The best Batman movie of the last 20 years.
As Fist of Legend (written and directed by Gordon Chan, who wrote and produced this one) built on Fist of Fury by developing, you know, characters, so this sequel builds further by fleshing out and complicating the historical milieu. Beginning with the Chinese experience in World War I, but spending most of the time locating Chen Zhen within the context of the Chinese struggle against Japanese imperialism, both overtly (student and labor protests) and covertly (various guerrilla activities as well as Chen’s own superhero antics). With Andrew Lau’s super glossy camera overdosing on the glamour of 1930s Shanghai (and Shu Qi: whoa) and Donnie Yen’s acrobatic and ultimately brutal choreography, a tribute to and expansion of Bruce Lee’s aesthetic.
Terrible title though.
It really does look fantastic. The sumptuous glossy spectacle that digital Hong Kong really excels at.
Golden Chickensss (Matt Chow, 2014) — December 11, 2014
Sandra Ng’s third film as the prostitute analogue for Hong Kong, but the first in a decade. It starts with a cartoon-y history of prostitution then throws us into the ultra-modern world of the contemporary brothel. Like the other films in the series, it’s an episodic story, going from the speedy intro to a funny bit about a Louis Koo impersonator. From there things slow down in a draggy middle section that ups the vulgarity (relaxed censorship laws, apparently) without being particularly funny. The turn from slapstick to poignancy that the first two films handled so well is rather clumsy here, as the film ends with a lengthy story about Nick Cheung as a triad boss imprisoned in 1996 (right before the Handover, of course) and only recently freed. Cheung and Ng are good enough to pull it off, but this is still the weakest of the series.
“The Grandmaster visits brothels. Ip Man is a faithful husband.” — Donnie Yen
The Monkey King (Soi Cheang, 2014) — November 18, 2014
An effects-spectacular miles removed from director Soi Cheang’s early films, or even his glossier work for Milkyway Image. Taking a cue from Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors films, Cheang completely eschews realism in an attempt to capture the lunatic logic of mythology. Donnie Yen plays the hero, buried by makeup and CGI in a fidgety performance that looks something like what would happen if Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover touched a brain-switching idol at the same time. The elements of the Monkey King legend are all there, manifested in an ultra-bright world of floating mountains and palaces, hidden waterfall glades and buried hells and even an undersea kingdom that looks like someone pirated a hard drive from The Phantom Menace. Some of the fighting is pretty neat, with Chow Yun-fat (as the Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven) and Aaron Kwok (as the Bull Demon, ruler of the demons) flying more convincingly than did Tsui’s Zu Warriors. The story of the Monkey King remains potent, an anarchic figure that struggles against the strict obedience dictated by rule-giving gods, striving towards freedom and immortality, but Cheang leaves most of it latent, hitting the high points melodramatically and quickly moving on to the next crazy image. Kwok and Chow are basically left to personal charm as a substitute for characterization, which works fine for Chow, because he’s the best.
The effects aren’t state of the art, at least in terms of what the Hollywood machine is able to put out. And compared to the visions in some of the wilder comic books out there, or even a random Ghibli film, they aren’t tremendously innovative, but they do look pretty good, with plenty of things I’ve never seen before. It’s brightly lit and spatially coherent, which is more than you can say for any Marvel movie, at least. Stephen Chow’s Monkey King movie from last year, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is much more heartfelt and more engaging, and just as compelling to look at.
Added February 13, 2018:
Even more cartoonish than I remembered. Not just the CGI, of which the film is almost entirely made and which looked cheap at the time and even cheaper now, but in Donnie Yen’s hyper-twitchy performance as the Handsome Monkey King. Donnie has a lot of strengths as an actor, but broad physical comedy is not one of them, especially when covered head to toe in elaborate make-up. So much of the film is phony, from the animation to the animal-human hybrid costumes, that one thinks Soi Cheang must have been going for some kind of Flash Gordon-esque campiness.
But the construction of the narrative doesn’t fit with that tone at all. This is the Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven narrative, the prologue to the Journey to the West. But the simple narrative of a headstrong and arrogant consciousness refusing to follow the rules of divine order, Soi Cheang and his writers contrive new motives for the Monkey King’s rebellion. He’s being manipulated by the Bull Demon King, who finds himself in the role of Milton’s Satan, cast out of Heaven for his own rebellion. But even that isn’t enough: both rebellions have to be sourced in romance. The Bull Demon is in love with Princess Iron Fan and she abandons heaven to live with him among the demons (she’s pregnant the whole movie, but there’s never any sign of their son, the Red Boy). And the Monkey King is in love with a fox spirit, which Bull Demon uses to manipulate him into rebelling against the Jade Emperor.
This is all trash Hollywood screenwriting book nonsense: characters aren’t allowed to be motivated by ideals, only by romantic passion. The incongruity between the narrative and the visual and performative tone of the film, between elementary psychological realism and flamboyant artifice, is simply too great and the film just falls apart. Only Chow Yun-fat can square that circle, and while his performance as the Jade Emperor is the best thing in the film, it’s not enough to save it. It’s just not fun.
Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) — April 5, 2019
I know it’s just a silly action movie and not actual history but it drives me nuts that Donnie built this whole movie about Ip Man’s relationship with his wife during her illness and death when in fact they didn’t even see each other during the last ten years or so of her life.
It’s gross. But hey, Donnie fights Mike Tyson and Zhang Jin is pretty cool.
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016) – December 16, 2016
Not as ambitious as Lucas's epics, which means that it doesn't ever quite hit any of the highs his films were capable of, but neither does it have any of the kind of awfulness he was occasionally plagued with. It's more akin to the Clone Wars series in this way, a kind of genre riff set within the Star Wars universe, very solid with an occasional glimpse at transcendence.
Biggest reservation is that with such a talented cast, there's simply no way Donnie Yen, easily the worst actor in the bunch (though of course a great performer and star), should be giving the most humane performance.
Added December 17, 2017:
Wish the ideological differences between Saw Gerrera and the Rebel Council were explored in more detail, but that's a different story, one which can be found in the Rebels TV series, and if my theory of the sequel trilogy is correct, possibly, Episode IX (note: it was not, lol). Hope and sacrifice are the keywords here, as they are again in The Last Jedi. It's beyond the scope of this movie, focused as it is on the men and women who actually enact rebellion, and the ways it breaks them, but the question remains: hope and sacrifice for what?
Theory: Mon Mothma is Kerensky, Saw is Lenin, Leia is Trotsky, Snoke is Kornilov, Kylo Ren is Stalin. Doesn't work because Saw dies too early. He has to be like Lenin's older brother or something. Maybe Finn will turn out to be Lenin. Lenin was always running away too.
Added November 25, 2019:
Galen Erso is more heroic than Franz Jägerstätter.
Chasing the Dragon (Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2017) — April 15, 2018
Lotta wig acting going on here. I guess Wong Jing must have seen American Hustle.
The Crippled Ho/Lee Rock hagiography no one asked for.
I haven’t seen the Andy Lau Lee Rock movies from the early 90s (you know, back when he and Donnie Yen were the right age for these parts), but I have seen To Be Number One, the Crippled Ho biopic from the same era. It’s not all that great, kind of a run of the mill gangster film of its era, but at least its plot makes sense and it finds something interesting to do with its female characters and it has no illusions about Ho and Lee being anything but gangsters.
Now that I’ve seen it, I’m not surprised this picked up Hong Kong Film Awards for editing and cinematography. Not that either are particularly good, but there is a lot of both. DP and co-director Jason Kwan did better work I think in 29+1, for which he wasn’t nominated. Our Time Will Come should have won both categories anyway.
Guardians of Martial Arts (Wen Zhang, 2017) — November 18, 2017
Jack Ma, one of the richest men in the world, daydreams about fighting all the best martial arts stars, and because he’s so rich, they actually go along with it. Neat to see Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, etc all together, with Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Ching Siu-tung doing the choreography. They do a respectable job of indulging the money.
Sakra (Donnie Yen, 2023) – April 14, 2023
If this movie comes out on physical media in France, it'll be a Sakra Blu.
May write more about this later. I dunno. Auteur Donnie and Author Louis Cha don't seem to mix well for me. Hilarious post-credits scene though.