Since finishing Ip Man in 2008, Donnie Yen has gone on to release 5 films, 3 of which being high-profile blockbusters.
The first of these was Bodyguards and Assassins, an action-drama set in turn-of-the-century Hong Kong.
With an all-star, ensemble cast, the film sported impressive production values, perhaps most notably the set, which consisted of a brick for brick recreation of several blocks of 1906 Hong Kong.
The film is essentially split into two halves, with the first being drama-heavy and ultimately responsible for setting the stakes, and the second being action-heavy, taking all the pre-established pieces of the plot from the first half and running wild them non-stop until the final reel.
While occasionally weighed-down by protracted bouts of melodrama, particularly in the film’s action-heavy second half, the film saves itself by providing an impressive level of characterization to what at first glance would appear to be an overwhelmingly bloated cast of characters.
Despite my ignorance in regards to pronunciation and recognition of Chinese names, I never found myself puzzled as to who was who or how every character related to one another.
Donnie Yen has a small but important role as a down-on-his-luck gambler seeking redemption for his past sins.
The role is minimal, with Donnie Yen being used primarily as an action element among the players, however he does have some truly effective dramatic moments.
The highlight of his performance, and perhaps the entire film however, is of course, a fight:
Apparently Mr. Yen was unhappy with his performance, and thusly organized a reshoot, without supplemental pay or benefits.
The result is a fight that, while inspired, and certainly beyond the norm in terms of choreography, is somewhat uneven and ultimately, unbalanced.
The sparring between the two players is crisp and on point for the most part, with great sound effects and music to back it up, but the MMA style joint locks and grappling seem largely out of place given the time period.
Perhaps most disappointing though, is the awkward use of wirework.
Though I’ve said before that wuxia isn’t really my thing, the fact of the matter is, that if one is going to incorporate fantastical wirework into a film, it’s implementation should be consistent rather than sporadic.
In all, the fight was a highlight for this film, however it doesn’t rank very high on Donnie Yen’s resume.
Donnie Yen’s next film, also released in 2009, was the 90’s wuxia throwback, 14 Blades.
I have not seen this film, so I feel I have no right to comment on it in detail, however I will say this:
I have very little desire to see this film anyway.
In fact there are many films Donnie Yen has made, particularly in the 2000’s, that I have almost no interest in seeing.
As I mentioned in previous articles in this blog, Wilson Yip was a blessing on Donnie Yen’s career.
In between the classics that Yip and Yen were cranking out in the late 2000’s, Donnie Yen also released a number of smaller, poorly regarded films, most of which were, you guessed it: wuxia films.
Seven Swords seemed overblown and lacked the proper “Yen Quotient.”
An Empress and the Warriors didn’t peak my interest in the least, given the plot and Donnie Yen’s presence as a character who exists for no other reason than to hit people.
And then there’s Painted Skin…
Well, Painted Skin just plain looked like ass.
I haven’t seen any of these films, including 14 Blades, but to my knowledge they have all received poor reviews, and while impressive to look at in some cases, and not terrible films in their own right, they simply don’t offer the Donnie Yen experience I’m looking for.
Despite being of the relatively advanced age of 46, Mr. Yen remains the top dog in terms of Hong Kong action cinema, with many of his upcoming films having him cast in action-heavy roles.
As I type this, Donnie Yen has more than 3 major films in the works, not the least of which being Ip Man 2, which was recently released in theaters.
The film reunites nearly all of the principle cast from the previous entry in the series, however this time the story has moved to 1930’s Hong Kong, and includes Sammo Hung in a co-starring role as an overbearing Hung Gar master at odds with Ip Man.
Highlights in the film look to be a long overdue rematch between Yen and Hung following the impressive nature of their brawl in SPL, as well as what appears to be Sammo and Donnie pitting their form based Hung Gar and Wing Chun against English screen-fighter, Darren Shahlavi‘s more fluid Western boxing.
Sadly, from what I’ve read, Fan Siu Wong‘s role in the film is very small, and totally devoid of action.
A shame really, as I was very impressed by his performance in the first film, both as an actor and a combatant.
I call the film bizarre due to the fact that the protagonist of the first film, Chen Zhen, was supposed to have gone down in a hail of gunfire at the end of Lee’s film, and yet, based on recent teaser footage, the sequel appears to have Yen cast not only as the same character, but as a masked vigilante practitioner of parkour.
Though I can’t say my hopes are up for The Return of Chen Zhen, it’s this continued process of adaptation and innovation that, in my eyes, keeps Mr. Yen’s performances from going stale.
Despite being discovered in the 80’s by one of the great directors and choreographers of our time, Yuen Woo Ping, Donnie Yen would not rise to prominence in the industry until more than a decade later, well after he had already begun to direct and choreograph his own films.
Unlike so many screen-fighters, in particular Jet Li, Donnie Yen has proven himself to be a student of the game.
Beyond being a fantastic martial artist, he has also displayed a remarkable sense of awareness in regards the kinetics of filmmaking.
Truly, particularly in recent years, he has come to embody the role not of screen-fighter, but that of a physical actor.
Some men, when placed into a fight scene, do nothing but hit their marks, keep to the beat, and wow with their physical prowess.
Donnie Yen does all of these things while injecting a sense of dramatic weight to his actions.
You care when he throws his punches and more importantly, you know why he chose to throw the punch the way he did.
Donnie Yen is of the rare breed of men that can not only teach, but also do.
Not only that, he is of the even rarer breed that can do both well.
At 46 I understand that Donnie Yen most likely has maybe 3-4 years left in him to produce truly great physical performances in his career.
Unlike Jackie Chan however, I believe Donnie Yen’s vanity and pride will keep him from stretching his fighting career beyond his means.
It saddens me to know that I was among those that overlooked Mr. Yen until such a late stage in his career, only to find that he was already beginning down the road to the inevitable end of his career.
I guess I should look at it not as me having missed the first 17 years of Yen’s career, but as me having witnessed the past 9, which is more than most can say.
I look forward to whatever the Mr. Yen is able to produce in the coming years.
Here’s hoping we’ll all be “wowed” one last time by the greatness that truly is, Donnie Yen.
Thank you to all who took the time to read this epic tribute of all I know and love about Donnie Yen!