Donnie Yen peaked late. Despite a boat load of talent and obvious early promise, a number of factors kept Yen off screens more than on them throughout what are normally an action star's peak years. There was his restrictive contract with Miramax. There was a public feud with former mentor Yuen Woo-Ping and the entire Yuen clan that saw Yen effectively blacklisted for a period. There have been persistent rumors of a large and difficult to manage ego.
But whatever the reasons it is only recently that Yen - now age 47 - has risen to the top of the martial arts world, risen so high that he is now widely considered the greatest screen fighter on the planet. And it seems quite clear looking over Yen's filmography that despite some key early titles it will be the 2000's that go down as his peak period, the decade where he topped the martial arts world.
And so, with the US release of Ip Man 2 coming this week, I take a look at Yen's five best non-Ip Man related fight sequences of the millennium. If you want to talk a good game when it comes to Yen, these are the movies you need to see.
Legend of the Fist
Yen reprises a role made famous by his idol - Bruce Lee - and later taken on by the great Jet Li in a film by Andrew Lau that re-imagines Chen Zhen as a masked hero. And while I have been pretty clear in my opinion that the film as a whole is fatally flawed the opening sequence of Legend of the Fist is probably the single most astounding moment of Yen's career. It's big and epic, staged on a massive scale, stretching the bounds of realism just far enough. It sits in the five spot only because there are some conflicting reports about how much of this is actually Yen versus how much is his stunt team. But either way it's brilliant.
Yes, one of Yen's mainstream Hollywood pictures makes the list. Why? Because Shanghai Knights remains, to my knowledge, the only time Yen has appeared on screen with the legendary Jackie Chan. The promise of a Yen vs Chan fight was what got me to drop money for a ticket and I was not disappointed. Yen's not given very much to do dramatically but the fight sequence is excellent and a sterling example of what it looks like when you match an actual martial artist (Yen) with a stunt performer / comedian (Chan). In short, Yen takes Chan to school. Yes, it's staged to be that way but the difference in the speed and precision of the two is immediately obvious.
Yen's second on-screen showdown with Jet Li comes in Zhang Yimou's sumptuous period epic. Yen's excellent spear skills are on display here in a classic battle against one of the all time great screen fighters as staged by one of China's greatest arthouse directors. It's gorgeous and exhilarating at the same time.
The film that cemented Yen's reputation as one of the most badass action choreographers in the world as he fused MMA grappling techniques with his normal kung fu styles to create something entirely unique for its time and brutal in its execution. Flash Point makes you wait a bit to get to the action but once it arrives it simply does not stop. Yen's character punches someone so hard that he gives him brain damage in this movie, but the key moment is the extended hand to hand battle between Yen and Colin Chou (The Matrix sequels, Bodyguard From Beijing) battering each other to a pulp.
SPL / Sha Po Lang / Kill Zone
Yes, the Sammo Hung fight is very good, too, but the very best moment of Donnie Yen's career is the SPL alleyway fight with Wu Jing. Reportedly shot over a single night and heavily improvised with the action between the two men - who share a master and thus are intimately familiar with each other's fight style - turning into a contest to see who could really hit the other first. It's fascinating to see the two men think on their feet and have to adjust as blows miss as they go at each other at ridiculous high speeds, both of them wielding weapons. Wu Jing told me in a later interview that Yen broke three of his extendable metal batons over Wu's forearms during the shooting of this fight.
I know we've got other fans of Yen out there, so speak up. What are your favorite Donnie Yen moments?
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