Depending on if you’re an action junkie or not, the name Donnie Yen will mean either everything or very little to you. True, he’s had minor roles in the likes of Rogue One and Blade 2, but this Hong Kong actor is best known for his martial arts prowess and unless you’re a fan of the genre, a lot of his best work may have passed under your radar. So in honour of John Wick: Chapter 4, in which Yen is co-starting as the antagonist to Keanu Reeves’ titular lead, I thought this would be a great chance to recommend some of Yen’s best but not Hollywood films.
Ip Man (series)
The Ip Man franchise is a series of loosely biographical films based on the life of Ip Man, the martial arts master of Wing Chun. The films retell in broad strokes the life and struggles of Ip Man with Donnie Yen in the title role. The films showcase the many struggles Ip Man and his family had to overcome over the decades, from poverty, occupation in the Sino-Japanese war, the British occupation of Hong Kong, racism, in-fighting, and yes, his most famous pupil, Bruce Lee. The series has a series of memorable and iconic martial arts scenes to complete its more dramatic tone though, which are a combination of practical stuntwork with some light “wire-fu” thrown in. This is a great entry point as it’s much more readily available (currently on Netflix in Canada, for example) and its biographical and historical nature make it appealing to a wider audience. Legendary choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, perhaps best known for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix trilogy, would lend his talents to the action of the third film.
Kill Zone: SPL
Perhaps my favourite Donnie Yen film, SPL: Sha Po Lang (or Kill Zone for Western audiences), is a detective story set in Hong Kong that features some of the best martial arts fights to come out of Hong Kong while having an interesting and compelling thriller story at the same time that features a group of police offers attempting to bring in the head of the Triad. The police, unsuccessful in their campaign, realize that the only way to win is by breaking the law, which goes against everything they represent. The film is directed by Wilson Yip, who directed Ip Man, and features a lot of the same cast members, including Donnie Yen, Simon Yang, and Sammo Hung. The alley fight between Yen and Wu Jing, in particular, is flat-out awesome and I’ll never forget how amazed I was at seeing Sammo Hung fight for the first time. He’s a larger man in stature, yet he moves so fast, so much so that I was caught off guard.
The story of Flash Point lacks some of the nuisance found in SPL, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being an entertaining action flick. The most memorable aspect of this movie, which is the idealized goal of any martial arts movie, is to have an amazing fight scene and Flash Point gets this with its end fight, in which Donnie Yen throws down in spectacular fashion with Colin Chou, perhaps best known as Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. You’re definitely watching this one for the action and less so for the story, which isn’t bad by any means, but it isn’t pushing the envelope either.
Iron Monkey is directed by the previously discussed Woo-Ping Yuen, so if you’re a fan of action, that alone should merit interest in this 1993 Hong Kong action film. The picture was re-released in 2001 in the US, but with many changes that proved to be controversial to fans of the original cut. So if you can find yourself a copy of the original version, I’d try and prioritize that. Regardless, this is a fictitious account of the father/son folk hero duo Wong Fei-hung and Wong Kei-ying and their run-in with the titular Iron Monkey.
One of Donnie Yen’s most recent films as of the time of this writing may be a little light on plot, but it more than makes up for it in action. Admittedly, I’ve not seen this one but it boasts excellent reviews, and fans of Hong Kong action will no doubt recognize the names of the cast, which includes Nicholas Tse and Simon Yam with Benny Chan in the director’s chair. ‘Nuff said to pique my interest, I want to check it out, and considering it seemingly slipped under the radar, I figured I would highlight it for those who may have been interested but were unaware of it.
I put Hero as a bonus entry for one simple reason: Donnie Yen is neither the lead, nor the co-star of this film, yet it’s such an exceptional film that it deserves its spot on the list. Directed by legendary director Zhang Yimou, the film is set in ancient China and involves Jet Li’s Nameless recounting to the King just how he defeated three assassins who had previously tried to claim the King’s life. Nameless brings each assassin’s weapon as proof and recounts the story of their defeat. With each story, Namless is allowed closer to the King, who initially out of security, limits all visitors to 100 paces from him. Donnie Yen plays Long Sky, one of the assassins, and features in a great scene where he and Jet Li have a truly beautiful fight in a rainy courtyard, which I’ll link below.