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Donnie Yen, the true successor to Jet Li and Jackie Chan

Donnie Yen, the latest entry to the ‘John Wick’ franchise, may be the pre-eminent martial arts actor of the 21st century

Donnie Yen at the New York Asian Film Festival 2012.
Donnie Yen at the New York Asian Film Festival 2012.

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John Wick: Chapter 4, the latest entry in the blockbuster action franchise, will be released soon. One of the major draws this time will be watching the titular super-assassin (played by Keanu Reeves) face off against an old friend and fellow assassin, Caine, who works for the “High Table”, this world’s dominant criminal cabal. Excitingly, Caine is played by Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen, arguably the pre-eminent martial arts actor of the 21st century, and the true successor to stars such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Over the last decade or so, 59-year-old Yen (whose mother is a martial arts/Tai Chi grandmaster herself) has been seen in supporting roles in big-ticket Hollywood movies like the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One (2016), the Vin Diesel movie XXX: Return Of Xander Cage (2017) and Disney’s Mulan (2020).

Before you head to the theatre to watch Caine and Wick trading blows, here are some of the most memorable roles of Donnie Yen that you can watch online.

Ip Man series 1-4 (2008-19), director Wilson Yip: This franchise cemented Yen’s reputation as the premier martial arts star of his generation. Yen plays real-life kung fu master Ip Man, an influential teacher who counted Bruce Lee among his students. Yen’s proficiency in Wing Chun (the southern kung fu form Man and Lee popularised) is used to devastating effect by Hong Kong cinema icon Sammo Hung, who did the fight choreography for Ip Man and Ip Man 2. Hung, of course, was responsible for some of Jackie Chan’s biggest hits of the 1980s , often acting alongside Chan as villain or comic relief.

The table-top fight between Hung and Yen in Ip Man 2 (Hung plays a rival kung fu master) is one of the all-time great hand-to-hand combat scenes ever filmed. The warehouse fight sequence is a barely believable battle royale, with Yen fighting off scores of armed men—without killing or seriously injuring even one. The series’ concluding film, Ip Man 4, pits Yen against martial arts bigwig Scott Adkins (they will be united again in John Wick: Chapter 4).

Yen’s hand speed, reflexes and sheer star power make the Ip Man series a must-watch for martial arts fans. Bonus points to the third and fourth films for giving us a terrific on-screen Bruce Lee (played by Danny Chan; his physical resemblance to Lee really is incredible). In India, dubbed versions of the first and third movies are available on Amazon Prime Video.

Legend of the Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen (2015), director Andrew Lau: Lau, maker of the super-slick Infernal Affairs (2002-03) movies, collaborated with Yen for this period action movie, set in 1930s China. Yen plays Chen Zhen, a dissident Chinese hero fighting Japanese imperialist forces—the same character was previously played by Bruce Lee (Fist Of Fury) and Jet Li (Fist Of Legend), not to mention Yen himself in a 1995 TV series. Because of that, the screenplay is a bit cloying, quick to whip out Chinese nationalism for longish stretches.

The visuals, the fight scenes especially, are excellent, however. Yen did the fight choreography, mixing Bruce Lee’s signature Jeet Kune Do form with elements of wrestling, grappling and MMA (which Yen believes to be philosophically aligned to Jeet Kune Do). The mixture sometimes feels closer to a Hollywood superhero film than a Hong Kong action film but Yen steers the ship expertly. The film is available on Apple TV+.

Kung Fu Killer (2014), director Teddy Chan: This film sees Yen playing Hahou Mo, a “loose cannon” cop and martial arts expert who is convicted of manslaughter after brutalising a suspect. Years later, Mo is released so he can hunt down a serial killer targeting only kung fu masters. At around the 10-minute mark in the film, Yen’s character bashes up dozens of men at close quarters in a prison brawl scene that’s masterfully shot and acted (the zillion extras must have been a nightmare to choreograph).

Once again, Yen did the fight choreography and does a marvellous job. The serial killer is targeting masters of various styles—the first master he kills is famous for his punches, the second for his kicks, the third for swordplay, and so on. Yen and Chan know just how to fully utilise each of these styles in combat, which camera angles to emphasise for which style. The film is available in India (dubbed in Hindi) on Amazon Prime Video.

In 'John Wick: Chapter 4', the titular super-assassin (played by Keanu Reeves) will face off against an old friend, Caine, played by Donnie Yen.
In 'John Wick: Chapter 4', the titular super-assassin (played by Keanu Reeves) will face off against an old friend, Caine, played by Donnie Yen.

Flash Point (2007), director Wilson Yip: When Flash Point was made, I believe Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip were close to discovering the ideal collaborative rhythm (they would begin the Ip Man series shortly after)—but they hadn’t quite found it. And so, this paint-by-numbers story of a renegade cop (Yen) taking on a triad run by three Vietnamese brothers doesn’t really feature brilliant writing or expertly deployed cinematic tension.

But the fight scenes are a sight to behold, heralding the future dominance of the Ip Man movies. With Flash Point, the emphasis is fights-to-the-death; brutal hand-to-hand combat involving joint locks, killer blows to the neck and limbs snapping in two. Yen, channelising the righteous rage of early Bruce Lee films, is spectacular, never more so than in the extended climactic battle. Yen wears a white vest, showing off his surreally shredded physique (he actually had to lose weight for the Ip Man films because the Wing Chun style emphasises speed, not strength), and kicks ass for 15 minutes non-stop. This film is an excellent demonstration of why certain martial arts are considered to be lethal. Sadly, this movie is not legally available in India—but the fight scenes are all on YouTube.

Wing Chun (1994), director Yuen Woo-ping: This 1990s classic unites Hong Kong cinema legends Yen and Michelle Yeoh, who earlier this month became the first Asian woman to win a Best Actress Oscar. Yeoh plays Wing Chun, a young woman whose martial arts prowess protects her village from a pair of bandits. Yen plays her childhood sweetheart Pok-To, a sincere but simple-minded warrior who’s stumped by Wing Chun’s physical transformation (she dresses up like a man for combat).

Although Yeoh is the real star of the show, Yen gets a decent chunk of screentime, in both combat scenes and otherwise. The elegant yet lethal art form of Wing Chun (after whom the titular character is named) is showcased beautifully; the Yeoh-as-tomboy angle ties in with the history of the form because Wing Chun was created by a woman, with the aim of defeating larger and physically stronger opponents.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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