Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen stars Donnie Yen as a fictional martial-arts Chinese hero played at times by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li. But this isn't another disposable B movie. Lau made Infernal Affairs, which was superior in every way to its Americanization, The Departed, and he grounds his action in historical traumas, in a legacy of oppression.
Here, Chen Zhen goes to battle for his countrymen, first when they're used as cannon fodder by Allied troops in World War I, then when they're terrorized by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1925 Shanghai.
The prologue is stupendous: Yen zigzags over battlefield debris dodging bullets and then somersaults into a nest of German snipers. Kawabunga! But when the film shifts to the swank "Club Casablanca" in Shanghai and Yen makes like Bogie and also becomes a masked superhero, there's too much lustrous-hued loitering and too few sustained martial-arts set pieces.
Moving to Japan, 13 Assassins is a classical period epic in the Seven Samurai mode by, directed by, surprisingly, Takashi Miike, best known for his yucky transgressive horror films. The solemn first half centers on the assembly of a team to kill the shogun's psychotically cruel half-brother. And that's not an easy decision for samurai in a culture with no tradition of taking the law into one's own hands. Plus, they'll be outnumbered by a factor of ten — or maybe twenty — by a lot. But these are men who live to die well. In the second half, the band of 13 traps the half-brother's army in an evacuated village, which our heroes proceed to demolish, and the mixture of bloodletting and exultation would make Sam Peckinpah sit up in his grave and howl with joy.
Taiwan-born Justin Lin's Fast Five is the one that really rocks. It's the fifth in the Hollywood series that began with The Fast and the Furious, and I must confess to having missed two, three, and four. But I heard rumblings five was something special and yowza, is it ever. For one thing, it's only one part muscle-car movie — the other part is a caper flick in the style of Ocean's 11.
It's also easier to get oriented if you know the back story. Paul Walker was previously an undercover cop trying to get the goods on Vin Diesel and his gang of car thieves/fetishists. But then Walker decided Diesel was A-OK and also fell for his sister, Jordana Brewster; and by the time we get to part five he's helping break Diesel out of prison and high-tailing it to Brazil.
That's when they bump heads with a murderous Brazilian crime lord and assemble a team to steal his dirty money — a team that includes the willowy Israeli Gal Gadot, Ludacris, and Tyrese Gibson, the one who first wants no part of the scheme. There's a ton of plot and crisscrossing characters, but Fast Five is really an exercise in kinetics — in cars that scream around corners and up and down the streets of Rio's vertical slums and stunts so amazing they seem to bend time and space without the evident aid of computers.
I saw the movie in IMAX, which I strongly recommend if you have anti-nausea pills, the better to savor the low-angle shots of these amazing specimens, male and female, behind the wheel as the scenery flies by — so much tanned flesh and swollen pectorals and long legs and big shaved noggins. When bald Diesel faces up to a U.S. agent played by bald Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, who has biceps wider than his head, you might think you're having a testosterone-induced drug hallucination. It's meathead-movie bliss. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.