What makes a great martial arts movie star to American audiences? Look at the ones who have come before and found the most success: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Jim Kelly, and Jet Li. They’re all ferociously talented and brought something new to the silver screen that quickly became their trademark. Lee was fast, Chan was funny, Norris a believable white American martial arts hero, and Kelly a believable black American martial arts hero. Li synthesized intricate combat choreography and high-flying wire work.
At one point, there were a lot of these men and women, both homegrown and available via import VHS tapes and DVDs. Remember, Steven Seagal was once one of the biggest box office draws in the world. Now, there are considerably fewer, as age and time have taken their toll. And Donnie Yen may end up being the last man standing. What does Yen bring to the table, and how has he outlasted his peers? The secret is his innate charm, durability, and the fact that he continually pushes his craft forward.
Yen has channeled his long-lasting good looks—he turned 51 this year, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him—and incredible creativity into a decades-long career. Yen has an old-school charm about him. He’s easy on the eyes and as quick with a smile as he is with a flurry of blows. His characters tend to blend wry humor with a penchant for bone-crunching maneuvers, making for extended fights that are both awe-inspiring in their speed and ferocity and smile-inducing in their cleverness.
In Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China II (1993), Yen went head-to-head against Jet Li. Li’s Wong Fei Hung spent the majority of the film carefully sidestepping and/or dominating anyone who approached him with ease. Yen, in a mercilessly brief battle choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping (designer of fight sequences for Drunken Master, Kung Fu Hustle, The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), provides the first real challenge for the ascendant Li. It was a precursor to a later, longer battle with a dynamite ending, but the message was clear: Donnie Yen is here, and he’s much, much cooler than we deserve.
Once Upon A Time In China II wasn’t Yen’s first film, but it was a tipping point. Regular roles followed, and by 1997, he was directing, starring and providing choreography. A brief appearance in Zhang Yimou’s award-winning 2002 film Hero reunited Yen and Li. He also crossed over to Hollywood here and there, playing a few supporting roles in Hollywood pictures like Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and the Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson buddy sequel Shanghai Knights, but Yen’s best work still came via imports from Hong Kong.
A large part of Yen’s enduring coolness is down to his relationship with writer-director Wilson Yip. In 2005, Yip and Yen unleashed SPL: Sha Po Lang (released as Kill Zone in the US) on the world, a throwback to the hard-boiled Hong Kong action cinema of the ‘80s. Yen plays a cop hellbent on capturing a villain (played by martial arts legend Sammo Hung), and their eventual battle blends mixed martial arts, street fighting, wrestling, and traditional kung fu techniques to create something unpredictable.
The duo shifted gears and struck gold in 2008 with Ip Man. Yen starred as master Ip Man, the Wing Chun teacher whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. It was the kind of lush, period, non-fantasy kung fu movie that can only be made in China and (usually) rarely makes it to U.S. shores.
Ip Man was a hit. The historical drama and incredible fights — at one point Yen destroys a school of karate practitioners with ease and it’s not even the best scene of the film — struck a nerve, solidifying Yen’s place as one of the top Hong Kong action stars and confirming that he’s got dramatic chops, in addition to considerable physical talents. Yen smoothly stepped from the outskirts directly into the limelight, and then made sure he’d never leave. He struck a chord a lot of people wanted to hear.
Yen’s competitive nature makes his movies cooler than the average, and that’s everything to creating lasting appeal. The draw of martial arts movies often comes down to how often it makes you go “whoa” or pause the movie to replay a particularly amazing scene. When I saw Once Upon A Time In China II as a kid, I was impressed that Yen could keep up with Li, who at the time was the Next Big Thing, the Mike Tyson of kung fu flicks. Yen’s final scene is melodramatic, but unbelievably cool. After being mortally wounded in an incredible battle, Yen staggers backward, reaches out to Li, and dramatically closes his hand into a fist. His body language says it all: “This isn’t over. I’ll see you in Hell.”
That’s the feeling we chase when we’re watching martial arts films. It’s why I love them. Yen’s over-the-top death in Once Upon A Time In China II *is the same as Bruce Lee tasting his blood to show how little he cares about Han’s claw in *Enter the Dragon (1973). It’s Jet Li fighting Yasuaki Kurata blindfolded in Fist of Legend (1994), Tony Jaa versus Lateef Crowder in a burning, flooded room in The Protector *(2005), JeeJa Yanin going head-to-head with a capoeirista in *Chocolate (2008), Iko Uwais looking at a hallway full of goons and deciding he can take them in The Raid (2011), and every single scene featuring an old cook showing a hot young whippersnapper exactly who’s the master. You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before, and you’ll laugh in excitement even as you cringe in sympathetic pain.
All the great martial arts movies and actors have one thing in common: they’re cool. Martial arts films have been a part of my life since I was a child, from feasting on old dubbed Wu-Tang films hidden in neon VHS cases to enjoying Jackie Chan finally breaking into the United States to finally seeing classic Shaw Brothers kung fu features on blu-ray. These films have continually shown me new and fascinating and cool things, whether I’m watching Gordon Liu teach kung fu to the masses in 36th Chamber of Shaolin or laughing while Michelle Yeoh completely and utterly steals the spotlight from Jackie Chan in Supercop. Whether you want to be the person doing the maneuvers or you’re content to be impressed by watching humans in peak condition engaging in beautifully or brutally choreographed fights, martial arts movies will scratch that itch.
If you’re watching a Donnie Yen film — like the historical fantasy 14 Blades, which hits VOD on 8/22 — you’re looking to see his incredible speed and the way he updates the familiar with a harder edge. Being a reliable trendsetter is Donnie Yen’s trademark. His attention to detail and dedication to the art of film fighting forces him to meet or exceed his previous best with each new showing, and that means you’re going to get something new and cool with each new outing. It’s not enough to simply show up and go through the motions. Martial arts cinema, like anything else, evolves with time, and Yen has made a habit of continually pushing his work forward, incorporating new ideas, techniques, or approaches in an attempt to make sure his work strikes a chord with audiences.
Donnie Yen lasted this long because you can rely on him to bring something cool to the table. And he punches people real good.