The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Donnie Yen

Last week, we took a look at the career of thesp Ralph Fiennes. This week we're switching up genres to go with a cult icon who's recently found himself thrust onto the worldwide stage thanks to the ever-increasing influence of his home country on the biz…

Donnie Yen

Donnie Yen should have achieved martial arts superstardom a good decade before it finally happened for him. Now fifty-two, Yen’s been active in the industry since the mid-eighties, but despite his excellent command of English and his good looks, Yen’s career never reached Jet Li/Jackie Chan levels until those two titans more-or-less ditched Hong Kong cinema for new careers in North America.

Yen himself has strong ties with both Chan and Li. One of Yen first big roles was as the villain in Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2, with the climatic bout between Yen and Li being considered one of the finest on-screen showdowns over. They later re-teamed for a more ethereal fight in Zhang Yimou’s HERO. Over a decade later, Jackie Chan brought Yen to the U.S for a plum part as the baddie in SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, where he paid Yen the ultimate compliment of actually making his own character no match for Yen’s martial arts prowess.

While initially pigeonholed as a baddie, Yen eventually made a name for himself as a kung-fu hero, with notable roles in IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4 and the classic IRON MONKEY. My belief is that Yen suffered when the China takeover happened in 1997, as that really marked the end of the Hong Kong film industry’s golden age. Yen himself tried to crossover to American films, but he was given little to do in BLADE 2 and fared pretty poorly in the awful HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME.

Luckily, Yen’s fortunes picked-up big time around the time he turned forty, with a showcase role in Tsui Hark’s SEVEN SWORDS, and most importantly, a starring part in Wilson Ip’s SPL: KILL ZONE. A sleeper-hit, it’s success led to several other collaborations with Yip, including the comic-book style DRAGON TIGER GATE, and the gritty FLASHPOINT (one of Yen’s best star-vehicles). His career really hit the big-time with Yip’s IP MAN & IP MAN 2, which became a sensation in Mainland China and kicked off a whole slew of copy-cat Ip Man (Bruce Lee’s former sifu) movies. Most importantly, they made Yen a full-on superstar, with him going on the dominate the China box office with a string of martial arts picks, some of them good (DRAGON, LEGEND OF THE FIST) and some of them not-so-hot (ICEMAN, SPECIAL ID).

Now a bigger star than ever, and better positioned for international success due to China’s new impact on the global box office, Yen looks sure to continue-on as a major action hero, even if he himself has often admitted he’s getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for kung-fu. Then again, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are older than him and they’re still at it!

His Best Work

It’s a shame Wilson Yip’s SPL (or KILL ZONE as it’s called in the US) isn’t better known. A tough neo-noir, it’s a daring entry into the genre as there’s virtually no action until an hour into the film. Rather, time is spent establishing out anti-heroes, being a corrupt squad of cops led by HK stalwart Simon Yam. Yen himself starts off as a supporting character, playing their by-the-book superior but as the movie goes on he becomes the focus, as their schemes wind up having a disastrous effect, leaving Yen to clean up their mess. There are two insane fights in this one (more on the first below) and Yen’s final battle with Sammo Hung has a bonkers, ultra nihilistic end that was so shocking it netted the film the ultra-restrictive Cat III rating in Hong Kong – usually something that’s only given to skin flicks and ultraviolent exploitation (which this is not).

His Most Overrated Film

The movie-making system is wildly different in China, with a censors dictating a large part of what can and can't be made. As such, Yen's movies that have been made in mainland China tend to be more simplistic than his Hong Kong films, but he still manages to put out pretty consistent work. That's why I was so disappointed by Wilson Yip's IP MAN 3. It was so hugely anticipated that I figured it would be a kind of mini action masterpiece, but it would up being a rather tired, episodic and altogether unnecessary addition to the saga (read my full review here).

His Most Underrated Film

The first Donnie Yen movie I ever saw was IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4. This is a weird series, as IN THE LINE OF DUTY 1 & 2 don't actually exist, with the saga only beginning at 3 (apparently it's meant to be taken as a follow-up to the Michelle Yeoh vehicles YES MADAM & ROYAL WARRORS). Cynthia Khan is our ass-kicking heroine in this Yuen Woo-Ping directed actioner. Donnie Yen is a supporting player, but clearly Yuen saw something in him, with Yen getting several standout action scenes including a wild mano-a-mano with a pastel-wearing villain in the climax. Being a product of the eighties, it's goofy as all hell, with Miami Vice-style clothes and a super-synthy soundtrack. Yet, it's a ninety minute blast of pure HK action madness, and an early gem in Yen's career.

His Best Scene

While I toyed with putting in the crazy 1:1 bout with Jet Li from the end of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2, in terms of impact Yen's police baton fight with Wu Jing in SPL can't be beaten. Not only did it help make Yen a star after a low-key decade spent in sub-par vehicles, but it also turned Wu Jing into a major genre star in HK/China. In fact, when an SPL sequel was eventually made (read my review here) Wu Jing came back as another character and got elevated to leading man/hero status.

His Five Best Films

5. (Tie) IP MAN/ IP MAN 2

Up Next

While he has a whole bunch of Chinese movies in the pipeline, Yen's also got some major US productions in the works, including an English-language vehicle called NOODLEMAN as well as a part in a little movie called ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.