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Two new Asian action pictures demonstrate that art and gore are not mutually exclusive. Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen features Donnie Yen as the mythical hero, played in the past by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li. Here, Chen Zhen stands up for his Chinese countrymen, first when they’re used as cannon fodder by British and American troops in World War I, then when they’re terrorized by the Imperial Japanese Empire in Shanghai. The prologue is stupendous, with Yen zigzagging and scampering around battlefield debris to take out a nest of German snipers: Take that, Quentin Tarantino! But when the film shifts to Shanghai and the club Casablanca, there’s too much lustrous-hued loitering and too few martial­-arts set pieces. This isn’t another disposable B movie, though. Lau made Infernal Affairs,Superior in every way to its Americanization, The Departed, as well as sequels that deepened that picture’s scope, and the melodrama in Fist is grounded in national traumas—muddled loyalties and a legacy of oppression—that play out in various forms to this day. Much more consistent is 13 Assassins, a surprisingly classical epic in the Seven Samurai mode by Japanese bad boy Takashi Miike. The solemn first half centers on the assembly of a team to kill the shogun’s psychotically cruel half-brother—not an easy decision in a culture with no tradition of vigilantism. But these are the kind of men who live to die well: “He who values his life dies a dog’s death.” The second half of the film, in which our band of thirteen traps the half-brother’s army in an evacuated village they proceed to demolish, has a mixture of bloodletting and exultation that would make Sam Peckinpah sit up in his grave and howl with pleasure.

The Beaver
Summit Entertainment. PG-13.

Hobo With a Shotgun
Magnolia Pictures. NR.

Legend of the Fist
Well Go USA. NR.

13 Assassins
Magnolia Pictures. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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