Bruce Lee’s worthy heir? Martial arts star Donnie Yen’s 7 best films – from Hero to Iron Monkey

Hong Kong cinema has a proud history of martial arts film stars. Bruce Lee ruled the silver screen in the 70s, Jackie Chan dominated throughout the 80s and Jet Li rose to prominence in the 90s. The 21st century, however, belongs to Donnie Yen.
Although his career began in the 80s, it took Yen many years to receive his dues. His early kung fu films, although well received by fans, did not initially translate into stardom of the kind enjoyed by his predecessors. A move to Hollywood in the late 90s did not pay off either; Yen was unable to secure high profile projects of the kind Jet Li did with Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die.
It wasn’t until he returned to Hong Kong in the early 2000s and rebuilt his career that Yen was recognised for his talent and charisma. After landing roles in big Hong Kong Lunar New Year films like All’s Well, Ends Well 2012, and Stars Wars: Rogue One back in Hollywood, Yen could finally count himself among cinema’s elite.
In celebration of the star’s 57th birthday this month, here are seven of Donnie Yen’s best kung fu movies that helped make him the renowned star he is today.
In the Line of Duty 4: Witness
Although Cynthia Khan gets top billing in this movie, Donnie Yen more than holds his own in this all-action affair that also features the fight choreography skills of action director Yuen Wo-ping who would go on to direct the action for Hollywood hits like The Matrix and Kill Bill. Yen battles foreign baddies John Salvitti and Michael Woods in quick succession in two brutal fights.
Tiger Cage 2
Another Yen collaboration with Yuen Wo-ping (this time as director), Tiger Cage 2 was a holy grail of sorts for fight fans. For years it was famed for its intense action scenes, but it was notoriously hard to find a decent copy. Thankfully, that situation has been remedied in more recent years, and it is fairly easy to see this action classic nowadays. The plot is nothing to write home about, but the martial arts prowess on display more than makes up for that.
New Dragon Gate Inn
In this remake of King Hu’s wuxia classic, Yen shows that it’s not just punches and kicks that he excels at. When it comes to traditional wuxia swordplay, he is just as proficient. He is joined by a future legend of the genre, Brigitte Lin (who would soon become iconic for her roles in Ashes of Time, Swordsman 2 and 3, and The Bride with White Hair), as well as stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Ka-fai, who, with Yen’s help, manage to look the part as traditional wuxia heroes.
Iron Monkey
One of Yen’s most popular Hong Kong films sees him reunite with director Yuen Wo-ping while adding the talent of director Tsui Hark, as producer and script writer, to the mix. It’s no wonder this is viewed as one of the best martial arts movies of the 90s. A prequel to Hark’s hugely popular Once Upon a Time in China series, Iron Monkey focuses on hero Wong Fei-hung when he was still a boy. The wire fu is among the best filmed, making this an unmissable entry in Yen’s filmography.
Hero
In the early 2000s Yen was trying to forge a career in Hollywood, but he was restricted to small parts in minor productions like Highlander: Endgame and Blade II. One of his few Chinese projects at the time was for director Zhang Yimou’s award-winning Hero. Yen’s part in the film is confined to a small one early on, but his battle against Jet Li in a damp courtyard beneath gently falling rain is probably the best fight scene in the entire film.
SPL
Yen took the reigns as action director for this 2005 film that showed there was still life in Hong Kong action films long after John Woo and Jackie Chan had departed for Hollywood. SPL has an all-star cast of HK action legends, Yen himself, plus Simon Yam, Sammo Hung and a young Wu Jing (who with the Wolf Warrior films has been smashing box office records in China in recent years). The result is a gritty crime flick punctuated by a number of hard-hitting fight scenes that helped to establish Yen as Hong Kong’s leading action man for the 21st century.
Flash Point
If further proof was needed that Yen was the successor to the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Flash Point …
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