With Donnie Yen’s upcoming action comedy Big Brother <大師兄> arriving this August 16th, it’s time to take a look at the Top 10 Donnie Yen Action Movies.
10) The Monkey King <西游記之大鬧天宮> (2014)
Kicking off the Top 10 Donnie Yen Action Movies is Soi Cheang’s critically-divisive version of The Monkey King <西游記之大鬧天宮>. Edmond Wong, Lola Huo Xin, Szeto Kam-Yuen and Chan Tai-Li’s screenplay may have been spotty in places. And despite given a hefty budget, the special effects look like a rushed job. But the movie is largely saved by Donnie Yen’s lively performance as Sun Wukong. Yen, who also responsible for the action choreography, helps elevate the otherwise uneven movie with a series of often rousing and epic action set-pieces.
9) Wu Xia <武俠> (2011)
Imagine Peter Chan’s Wu Xia <武俠> as a Hong Kong version of David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, in which Viggo Mortensen plays a mild-mannered family man who used to be a ruthless gangster. The storytelling pattern is fundamentally similar, with the exception of Donnie Yen’s Liu Jinxi playing a former vicious killer of the 72 Demons gang members who try to escape from his murky past.
The movie marks the second time Peter Chan explored the action-movie territory following The Warlords <投名狀> four years prior. He even successfully reinvents the usual wuxia genre with a refreshing Sherlock Holmes and CSI-narrative style, particularly during the first third of the movie with the introduction of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Xu Baijiu as a detective investigating the mysterious death of two wanted fugitives (Yu Kang, Kenji Tanigaki) in the paper workshop.
The fight scenes may have been sparse if to compare with the majority of Donnie Yen’s action-packed movies in recent memory. And yet, every major set-piece, particularly the earlier stylised sequence where Xu Baijiu reimagines Liu Jinxi’s actual fight with a mix of slow-motion and CSI-like effects, as well as the elaborate showdown between Liu Jinxi and the sword-wielding Kara Hui, are both muscular and thrilling enough that leaves a lasting impression.
The story tends to suffer from a languid pace and even overly melodramatic at times, while the supposedly memorable appearance of legendary Shaw Brothers veteran Jimmy Wang Yu as the leader of the 72 Demons is disappointingly over-the-top. But Donnie Yen’s stunning action direction, coupled with Peter Chan’s unique approach to the age-old wuxia genre as well as Yen’s solid dramatic turn and Kaneshiro’s perfectly eccentric performance, manages to offset most of the flaws in this otherwise fascinating genre movie.
8) Kung Fu Jungle <一個人的武林> (2014)
Donnie Yen and director Teddy Chen’s second collaboration following their 2009’s award-winning Bodyguards And Assassins <十月圍城> is a unique tribute to the 1970s Shaw Brothers kung fu genre.
With the help of Lau Ho-Leung and Mak Tin-Shu’s screenplay, they transplant the familiar genre into a gritty modern-day setting, in which an eager fighter (Wang Baoqiang) challenges every top martial arts expert he could find before setting up a final confrontation against former Hong Kong police academy martial arts instructor, Hahou Mo (Donnie Yen).
The combination of Yen’s close-combat action style alongside Yuen Bun and Yan Hua’s graceful martial arts choreography is seamlessly integrated to showcase different styles of fighting with the use of fist, foot and weapons. The only exception here is the inclusion of shoddy CGI during the final fight, which tends to rob some of the visual intensity of the movie.
7) Dragon Tiger Gate <龍虎門> (2006)
Based on the popular Dragon And Tiger Heroes manhua (Chinese comics) series by Wong Yuk-Long, this big-screen adaptation is easily the best Hong Kong comic-book movie ever made since Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders <風雲雄霸天下> back in 1998.
Edmond Wong’s screenplay, however, is a standard-issue action template: Dragon Wong (Donnie Yen) and Tiger Wong (Nicholas Tse) were both brothers from Dragon Tiger Gate separated since childhood but unexpectedly crosses paths during a big brawl in a Chinese restaurant. Long story short, they eventually reunite and soon join forces alongside new disciple, Turbo Shek (Shawn Yue) to take down the masked Shibumi (played by Yu Kang with Louis Koo providing the voice).
While the story isn’t the strongest suit in this movie, director Wilson Yip alongside actor and action director Donnie Yen manage to overcome the flaw by showcasing some of the most exhilarating fight sequences ever seen in recent memory. From the earlier brawls in the Chinese and Japanese restaurants to the final showdown against Shibumi, Yen’s action choreography is thrillingly staged with impeccable use of CGI, wirework and creative camera movements. He even successfully turned non-martial arts actors Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue into convincing fighters.
6) Ip Man 2 <葉問2> (2010)
Of all the three Ip Man <葉問> movies that have been released so far, this sequel is easily the weakest entry. This has to do with Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-Li and Choi Hiu-Yan’s screenplay, where they basically recycled the first movie’s template of Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man battling the Japanese” and replaced with “Ip Man defend the national honour against the British”. And instead of Hiroyuki Ikeuchi’s General Miura, Ip Man has to fight against the late Darren Shahlavi’s English boxer role as Twister.
But this sequel remains a rousing action spectacle. The first half is particularly promising, with Ip Man alongside his heavily-pregnant wife (Lynn Xiong) and his young son living in poverty after moving to Hong Kong. Trouble arises when Master Hung Chun-Nam (Sammo Hung) of Hung Ga Kuen isn’t pleased with Ip Man setting up a Wing Chun martial arts school without his permission.
Once again, Sammo Hung’s award-winning action choreography is the highlight here. This includes an elaborate action set-piece where Ip encounters Hung’s machete-wielding students in the abandoned fish market and a spectacular one-on-one duel between Ip and Master Hung atop a flimsy table.
5) Iron Monkey <少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮> (1993)
Although Donnie Yen plays a supporting role as Wong Kei-Ying in Iron Monkey <少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮> with Yu Rongguang taking the lead as Dr Yang/Iron Monkey, it’s hard to deny most of his contributions here in this 1993 martial arts classic.
Despite it took three screenwriters (Elsa Tang, Lau Tai-Muk and Tsui Hark) to pen the screenplay, the story itself is as streamlined as it gets. The movie basically involves Donnie Yen’s Wong Kei-Ying crosses path with Yu Rongguang’s Dr Yang/Iron Monkey before they set their differences aside, and take down the corrupted royal minister, Hin Hung played by screen veteran Yen Shi-Kwan.
What matters the most is Yuen Woo-Ping’s swift direction, as he successfully blends intricate wirework and gravity-defying action sequences with well-timed comic relief, courtesy from Tsui Hark’s input. This is especially evident during the long stretch when Dr Yang disguised as a royal minister running a spot check at the corrupted Governor Cheng’s (James Wong) court. The action, of course, remains the highlight here with a memorable set-piece where Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying battle against Hin Hung atop the burning wooden poles. Here’s a little trivia regarding Iron Monkey <少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮>: Tsang Tze-Man, who plays Wong Kei-Ying’s pre-teen son as Wong Fei-Hung is actually an actress.
4) Flash Point <導火綫> (2007)
At one point, Flash Point <導火綫> was originally titled as City With No Mercy and even positioned it as a sequel to the critically-acclaimed SPL <殺破狼>. If that’s not enough, Donnie Yen’s tough-guy cop role of Inspector Ma Jun bears a striking resemblance to his SPL‘s Inspector Ma Kwan character. But it turns out that Flash Point <導火綫> is more of a standalone action movie.
Although Flash Point <導火綫> lacks the interesting weight of SPL‘s neo-noir angle and strong supporting turns with the likes of Simon Yam, Sammo Hung and Liu Kai-Chi, director Wilson Yip does manage to keep things moving with his pacey direction. Szeto Kam-Yuen and Nicholl Tang’s screenplay may have been stripped to a typical ’80s and ’90s-style of cops vs. criminals action template but it still accomplishes a decent job.
The action is particularly the major selling point here, as Donnie Yen excels again with his then-unique close-combat choreography while incorporating mixed martial arts technique popularly known as MMA. Like SPL <殺破狼>, the full-blown action sequences only occurs towards the climactic finale and it’s all worth the wait. The movie’s best action set-piece of all is no doubt the final one-on-one duel between Yen and Collin Chou’s Tony.
3) Ip Man <葉問> (2008)
Remember when Tsui Hark and Jet Li’s successful collaborations in Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> back in 1991 turned into a Wong Fei-Hung craze during the ’90s era? The same pop-culture phenomenon in the Hong Kong film industry happens again when Wilson Yip’s Ip Man <葉問> made its debut in late 2008. The movie famously won the coveted Best Film at the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards, beating the likes of Ann Hui’s The Way We Are <天水圍的日與夜> and John Woo’s Red Cliff <赤壁>, and even earned Donnie Yen a rare acting nomination with his surprisingly down-to-earth performance as the titular character since his breakout supporting role in Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強>.
Truth to be told, Edmond Wong’s screenplay doesn’t possess a credible biopic but more of a by-the-numbers martial arts picture, complete with in-your-face nationalistic undertones of a “thoroughly noble Chinese fighter defending his country’s honour against the didactic Japanese”.
Although it hardly qualifies as a definite Ip Man biopic, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen do succeed in delivering a robust entertainment value. Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Siu-Hung’s award-winning action choreography is particularly top-notch, showcasing Donnie Yen’s impressive agility of his Wing Chun martial arts skills. Besides, who could forget the memorable scene where he single-handedly takes down 10 of Hiroyuki Ikeuchi’s General Miura’s students?
2) Ip Man 3 <葉問3> (2015)
This may have been an unpopular opinion but Ip Man 3 <葉問3> is the most accomplished entry to date, even overcoming the enormous popularity of the first movie.
Here’s why: Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-Li and Jill Leung’s otherwise episodic screenplay is blessed with an emotionally affecting arc involving Ip Man’s relationship with his wife. In the first two movies, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man is largely restricted as a martial arts icon and a noble Chinese fighter, who defends the country’s honour against the Japanese and British on two different occasions. But his character in the third movie is more personal, enabling Yen to deliver a surprisingly heartfelt performance altogether.
The story even sheds a different light of Ip Man as a caring husband, who finally realises that family value is more important than anything else in the world. Lynn Xiong, whose recurring role as Ip Man’s supportive wife, surprises me the most. It was her character that helps elevate the movie from mediocrity while providing necessary dramatic tension, which is both profound and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a shame that the Hong Kong Film Awards fails to land her a much-deserved supporting actress nomination.
Ip Man 3 <葉問3> also features some of the franchise and Donnie Yen’s best action sequences. With the help of Yuen Woo-Ping’s tense action choreography this time around, there are three major set-pieces worth mentioning here: Ip’s close-quarter fight against Sarut Khanwilai’s Muay Thai boxer in an elevator and down the staircase; the brief but exhilarating duel between Ip’s graceful Wing Chun-fighting style and Mike Tyson’s brutal boxing technique; and the final showdown between Ip and Zhang Jin’s scene-stealing Cheung Tin-Chi.
1) SPL <殺破狼> (2005)
This is the movie that helps revitalise Donnie Yen’s flagging acting career. Best of all, the filmmakers behind SPL <殺破狼> proves that they still know how to make a brutal and gritty action movie reminiscent of Hong Kong’s golden era of action cinema.
But SPL <殺破狼> is more than just a mere throwback to the old-school action movies. Szeto Kam-Yuen, Jack Ng and Wilson Yip’s screenplay add a nice, neo-noir touch to the otherwise straightforward cops vs. criminal angle. It almost like watching a movie from a Milkyway production, given the fact that Szeto Kam-Yuen is a regular Milkyway writer himself.
It also helps that the overall ensemble cast deliver top-notch performances, with Donnie Yen’s classic tough-guy cop role as Inspector Ma Kwan. Kudos also go to solid supporting turns by Simon Yam, Liu Kai-Chi and Danny Summer while Sammo Hung brings an edgy, no-nonsense persona to his rare antagonist role as Wong Po.
Of course, those who have seen SPL <殺破狼> before would nevertheless praise Donnie Yen’s remarkably tense action choreography the most. Sure, the movie isn’t particularly as action-packed as it might lead you to believe so. But once the third act arrives, this is where the movie truly delivers. Both action set-pieces involving the one-on-one baton vs. knife duel between Inspector Ma Kwan and Wu Jing’s Jet in the alleyway before concluding with a final fight against Sammo Hung’s Wong Po in the nightclub are worth the price of admission alone.