Rogue One is one of the top films of 2016, with millions watching it worldwide. There are visually incredible moments and intriguing twists, all supported by the best ensemble cast in Star Wars history. One of Rogue One‘s most celebrated characters is Chirrut Îmwe, the blind believer in The Force. Chirrut may not have a lightsaber, but he’s an unstoppable martial artist. Not unlike Donnie Yen, the legendary actor playing the part.
If Rogue One is your first real exposure to the celebrated actor, martial artist, and filmmaker, you’ve got some catching up to do. Donnie Yen has been a mainstay of China’s film industry since the 1980s, starring in features alongside folks like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh. Yen also has done extensive work behind the camera as a fight choreographer on multiple Hong Kong and Hollywood productions. With Rogue One being his biggest international film to date, maybe you’re ready to watch some of the actor’s best work. Here are four magnificent movies from across Donnie Yen’s storied career.
Director/choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping popularized “Wire Fu” action in the United States in films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Woo-Ping also has a long history collaborating with Donnie Yen, and Iron Monkey might be the best martial arts movie the pair ever did together. Released in North America years after its 1993 Hong Kong debut, Iron Monkey remains one of the most creative and exciting combinations of Yen and Woo-Ping’s filmmaking talents.
Iron Monkey is a bit like Zorro or Batman, a masked hero of the poor fighting against a strict government. Donnie Yen plays Wong Kei-ying, father to Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. Kei-ying is an innocent physician/kung fu grandmaster wrongfully accused of being the vigilante Iron Monkey. To help right wrongs and save the townspeople from a corrupt monk, Donnie Yen teams up with the titular hero for some of the most fantastic fights in film history. Even before Woo-Ping’s Fist of Legend, the lighthearted Iron Monkey was the movie that introduced many to the awe-inspiring, balletic combat of Wire Fu, and Donnie Yen showed his mastery of this visually stunning action. [Henry Gilbert, Senior Games Editor]
2008’s Ip Man is not a superhero film starring a vigilante with the power of copyright protection. In fact, it’s even better. If you’ve seen any of Donnie Yen’s kung-fu movies, it’s probably this one. This is the story of Ip Man, the 20th century master of Wing Chun martial arts whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. Ip Man launched a cottage industry of Ip action films, inspiring two sequels and even more rip-offs. The whole trilogy is great. Seriously, where else but in Ip Man 3 would the titular hero take on Mike Tyson.
The first Ip Man film is set just before and during the Japanese occupation of the city of Foshan, a martial arts capital. Ip Man quietly establishes himself as the greatest of the masters, taking on all rivals in a tasteful black cloak. Eventually, he finds himself on the wrong side of the local Japanese general, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a master of karate. The movie Ip Man ends in a nationalist martial arts struggle, with the pride of both nations at stake. Donnie Yen remains untouchably cool throughout every fight, owning the status of a modern kung-fu icon. [Erich Fuchs, Fan Contributor]
Donnie Yen is no stranger to fighting empires. In 2002’s Hero, he plays Long Sky, a skilled warrior determined to topple the Qin emperor, whose wars of conquest have made him the first emperor of a unified China. This puts him into conflict with Nameless, a master swordsman who, like Darth Vader, is on a path to hunt down the new emperor’s enemies. You won’t have to watch long to see Long Sky and Nameless in action. Their incredible showdown happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
Make no mistake: Donnie Yen is the star of these action scenes. His level of skill is impressive, and he easily keeps pace with the then-more-famous Jet Li. Spear and sword clash and their fight in the rain is a memorable scene in an overall extraordinary film. Hero is a visual feast even after Donnie Yen discharges his role. Each act has a distinctive color scheme that is impressively executed around the black-clad Nameless. And the story is not what it appears to be on the surface, including Yen’s part. Watch, and you may find that Donnie Yen’s roguish streak began long before the Force was with him. [R.W.V. Mitchell, Fan Contributor]
SPL – Kill Zone
Most of Donnie Yen’s best work is either in the realm of historical action or fantasy action. SPL – Kill Zone (aka Sha Po Lang) is one of Yen’s more rare entries in the modern gangster genre. Like iconic Chinese films For A Better Tomorrow and Infernal Affairs, SPL is a tense story of dangerous men found on both sides of the law. Yen plays Officer Ma Kwun, who’s out to take down a mob boss with the help of a soon-to-retire detective.
Donnie Yen is surrounded by a murderer’s row of Hong Kong cinema legends, including Sammo Hung and Simon Yam. There are multiple compelling fight scenes in this, as well as some of Yen’s best acting work. However, the real highlight is Yen’s alleyway fight scene against the actor Wu Jing. Compared to most of Yen’s other work, this is a much bloodier, grounded battle, but no less compelling. This one is worth searching out. [Henry Gilbert, Senior Games Editor]