It took a long time for Yen to become a leading man. He's only a few months younger than Jet Li, and they entered the industry at about the same time. But maybe it needed to take a while because Yen, like good wine or whiskey, got better with age. He toughed it out as the Hong Kong film industry imploded during the 90's, and his star finally took off with Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang) in 2005. It was Ip Man in 2008 that catapulted him to superstardom. Looking at his career, Yen's strength has been his natural poise -- he looks totally at ease whether he's doing wushu, mixed martial arts (MMA), or wing chun.
As with the Jackie Chan and Jet Li lists, I've selected 12 fights chronologically instead of ranking them, and only one fight per movie. Note: I didn't include the fights from Once Upon a Time in China II and Hero since those are on the Jet Li list already, but I do think they are some of Donnie Yen's best work.
Drunken Tai Chi (aka Drunken Tai Chi Master) (1984) - Donnie Yen vs. Wong Tao
While Donnie Yen's screen debut isn't a great martial arts movie by any means, it's noteworthy for two reasons. One, it was directed by Yuen Woo-ping, whom Yen would work with on several other films, including Tiger Cage (1988), Iron Monkey (1993), Fist of the Red Dragon (1993), and Wing Chun (1994). (I remember hearing there was once some tension between Yen and Yuen, but I believe it's all settled now.) Second, Druken Tai Chi does serve as an early showcase of Yen's innate talent as an action performer, both barehanded and with weapons. It's readily apparent here as he wields a Chinese chain whip against Wong Tao.
Iron Monkey (1993) - Donnie Yen vs. Evil Shaolin Disciples
If you're like me, this movie (and/or Once Upon a Time in China II) was your first real exposure to the coolness of Donnie Yen. It's a wirework extravaganza in the best possible way, with insane aerial combat and impossible acts of balance. This is also the movie where I first noticed Donnie Yen's signature jump kick -- he does the splits first to kick two people and throws in an extra kick at the end on his way down to take out a third guy. The final battle of the film -- Donnie Yen & Rongguang Yu vs. Yen Shi-Kwan -- is so much fun, but this solo segment with Donnie Yen is one for the highlight reel.
(Fun fact, all the actors in the final fight of Iron Monkey have fought both Jackie Chan and Jet Li during their careers. Donnie Yen fought Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights, and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II and Hero; Rongguang Yu fought Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon, and Jet Li in My Father is a Hero; Yen Shi-Kwan fought Jackie Chan in The Fearless Hynea, and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China.)
Fist of the Red Dragon (aka Hero Among Heroes) (1993) - Donnie Yen vs. Hung Yan-yan
Fist of the Red Dragon seems somewhat forgotten, and admittedly I haven't seen it in ages. It's similar to Once Upon a Time in China and Fong Sai-yuk in a lot of ways, which may explain why it gets so lost in the mix of 90s Hong Kong movies. Yen plays Beggar So, one of the legendary Ten Tigers of Canton. Beggar So teams up with the one and only Wong Fei-hung (played by Wong Yuk) to fight opium dealers.
The video above has a good sampling of Yen's fights in the movie, but I wanted to highlight the fight that starts at 5:27. It's the finale of the film, and in that battle's climax, Donnie Yen busts out some drunken boxing.
Legend of the Wolf (aka The New Big Boss) (1997) - Donnie Yen vs. The Chain Man
Legend of the Wolf is Donnie Yen's directorial debut, and it's damn bananas. In some ways, it's everything great about Hong Kong movies in the 90's -- zany excess is sometimes the best kind. It's definitely worth a watch for Donnie Yen fans, and it shows how far he's come as a filmmaker and action director. This particular fight is interesting in how props and weapons are used, though it's not the craziest thing in this movie by a long shot.
Kill Zone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang) (2005) - Donnie Yen vs. Jing Wu
While most of SPL is a a throwback to the pathos of classic Hong Kong crime dramas, its action-packed finale still feels fresh and invigorating today. This is the movie that many credit with revitalizing Hong Kong action movies.
Donnie Yen really shines here as a performer and action director, and while his MMA-fueled fight against Sammo Hung is remarkable -- a symbolic passing of the torch -- it's the Jing Wu fight that is so astonishing. This fight with Wu was partially improvised. For stretches of the fight, Donnie had a baton, Wu had a knife, and they just went at it for the camera, reacting spontaneously like seasoned martial artists would. This all adds an intense element of danger and unpredictability to every action and reaction, which is why this fight can be watched over and over again yet still feel brand new.
Flash Point (aka Dou Fo Sin and City Without Mercy) (2007) - Donnie Yen vs. Collin Chou
Flash Point is the spiritual sequel to SPL, and while it's not as good a film, it does feature an incredible throwdown between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou. The previous fight in the film is brutal as well -- the event that triggers it would be absurdly hilarious if it wasn't so downright cold.
I think if Donnie Yen and Jet Li are a perfect match for wushu fights in period martial arts movies, then Donnie Yen and Collin Chou are a perfect match for MMA fights in contemporary action movies. Yen and Chou previously tussled in the low-budget Taiwanese film City of Darkness (1999) and have filmed a rematch in Special Identity (Dut Shu Sun Fun), which comes out in China next year.
Ip Man (2008) - Donnie Yen vs. Louis Fan
Ip Man is like Donnie Yen planting his flag at the summit of Mount Action Movie. It's the role that's defined his career and made him heir to the martial arts movie throne. The film is very loosely based on the life of Yip Man, a wing chun practitioner who would eventually teach Bruce Lee. Filled with loads of nationalism and Chinese pride (it's about the Japanese occupation, so how could it not be?), it's heartfelt through and through. It's also a tough act to follow, both for its own sequel (more on that in a bit) and for Wong Kar-wai's much-delayed Yip Man film The Grandmasters.
There are so many great fights in Ip Man, it's a bit had to choose just one. While I think Donnie Yen vs. the 10 Japanese black belts is one of the most brutal things he's ever done, I really dig this fight against Louis Fan (Fan Siu-wong). The movement, the pacing, and the contrast in styles and character make for an entertaining fight.
Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) - Donnie Yen vs. Cung Le
Bodyguards and Assassins is an ensemble historical epic about the assassination attempt on Sun Wei in 1905. A ragtag group of bodyguards must protect him. The film begins as a character drama but then becomes a full-on action film in the second half. While he doesn't get the spotlight all to himself, Yen has a bruiser of a fight against Cung Le, a professional kickboxer and MMA fighter. It's brief but memorable in the context of the film, and it features Donnie Yen doing parkour to show off his agility. Le, on the other hand, barrels through people and gives chase in his own way. Like the Ip Man fight, the contrast in style is interesting to watch.
14 Blades (2010) - Donnie Yen vs. Kate Tsui Round 2
14 Blades isn't a great movie, and yet I think it's a total blast to watch. Something in my personality just enjoys Chinese fantasy films, or anything that reminds me of Tsui Hark in his prime. The movie also stars Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer, Painted Skin: The Resurrection) who I quite like. (Is it just me, or is she becoming Brigitte Lin version 2.0?) Donnie Yen's fantasy action sequences in 14 Blades are pretty spectacular, though this might depend on your tolerance for wires and CG. There's a cool duel in the forest against Shaw Brothers staple Chen Kuan-ti (who goes Mongo on a horse), but the most memorable fight for me pits Yen against Kate Tsui. There's some creative anarchy at work along with good use of the titular weapon -- 14 swords in a wooden box strapped to Donnie Yen's back.
Ip Man 2 (2010) - Donnie Yen vs. Sammo Hung et al. on a table
Ip Man 2 is a flawed yet still entertaining animal. The problem is the first Ip Man. The Yip Man character is established as an absolute beast in the previous film, yet he seems strangely depowered in this sequel. For some reason he's not as dominant or as intelligent a fighter, and I think it had less to do with the character getting older and more to do with creating drama for the film's final act. This is mostly noticeable when it comes to the finale against a British boxer played by Darren Shahlavi. Yip Man's opponent is a lot stronger than he is, but that's about it. The guy's wearing freakin' boxing gloves, and you'd think a wise martial artist would compensate for age and power with intellect and technique. The eventual strategy for victory is something Yip Man should have thought of before the fight even started.
But that gripe aside, Yen's table fight, including a rematch against Sammo Hung, is the film's best moment. It's an inspired bit of close-quarters choreography, and everyone looks great being badasses.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010) - Donnie vs. The Japanese
What started out as a remake of Fist of Fury wound up being three movies (maybe more) crammed together -- a war epic/Japanese occupation drama, a superhero movie about Kato from The Green Hornet, and a Fist of Legend sequel. It doesn't quite cohere, but the action is excellent when taken piecemeal. In fact, the scenes all make compelling cases to become their own films: the opening action sequence is a magnificent bit of wartime swashbuckling, and the Kato sequences make me wish they'd just done a masked vigilante movie starring Donnie Yen.
But the final fight in Legend of the Fist is the one I keep coming back to. Yen previously channeled Bruce Lee in a TV version of Fist of Fury from 1995, but here it seems much better, fusing Jeet Kune Do with MMA and wing chun. He basically makes the fighting style his own using everything he's learned (which seems like the point of Jeet Kune Do), always adhering to idea of broken rhythm and unpredictability. Also, nunchucks!
The Lost Bladesman (2011) - Donnie Yen vs. Andy On
Though Yen had always played legendary Chinese figures (Wong Kei-ying, Beggar So, Chen Zhen, Yip Man), The Lost Bladesman gave him the opportunity to play one of the country's biggest heroes: General Guan Yu. Though I'm still not familiar with The Romance of the Three Kingdom, this film isn't so concerned with historical accuracy or adhering to the legend. Instead, it's Yen as a god damn tank. He's armed with a guan dao (a bladed spear that was named after General Guan Yu), and he wields it like it's made of PVC pipe.
This action sequence is my favorite not just because of the superheroic mayhem but because of how the sequence is designed. The eventually payoff in the narrow space against Andy On is great -- a brutal light bulb moment. Guan Yu isn't just a tank, he's a clever god damn tank. (A second fight from the film begins at the 4:34 mark.)
Bonus: Mismatched Couples (1985) - Dance Magic!
Here's a double dose of boogaloo madness from Donnie Yen's second starring role, Mismatched Couples. (Another Yuen Woo-ping film.) The clip below features Yen and long-time friend John Salvitti. Salvitti would duel Yen again (but with swords) in Tiger Cage 2 (1990), and also helped Yen behind the scenes on Blade II, Hero, and Flash Point.