Bill Paxton may direct Kung-Fu, Donnie Yen should star

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Bill Paxton may be returning to the director’s chair with a project you wouldn’t expect. Apparently Paxton is in talks to direct a big-screen adaptation of the TV show Kung-Fu. In the show, David Carradine played a Shaolin monk in the wild west looking for his long-lost brother. In each episode, he wanders from place to place, meets people, and gets into adventures.

Bruce Lee claimed to have developed the show’s concept with Warner Brothers and was supposedly in talks to be the star. While the studio was interested in potentially casting Lee, Jerry Thorpe, the show’s primary producer, really wanted Carradine. In the end this was probably for the best since Lee, unfettered by television, would go on to become one of greatest martial arts movie stars ever.

There’s a great movie in a Kung-Fu adaptation if the script is solid and they get the casting right. To the latter issue, I want to make a case for Donnie Yen. Yes, he’s in his late 40s, but like a fine wine, Yen has just gotten better with age. (It should be noted that Yen is so well-preserved he looks like he’s in his 30s.) He’s one of the best choreographers and leading men in martial arts movies today.

Let’s do a crash course in Donnie Yen after the jump.

[Via First Showing]

I first became aware of Donnie Yen in the late-90s when I started getting into Jet Li’s work. Yen played the main baddie in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II, part of a great series chronicling the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. (Wong Fei-hung has been portrayed in hundreds of films since the 1940s by many different actors, including Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Gordon Liu.) Above you can see that Yen is a good match for Li in terms of their speed and physicality. The two would square off again in Zhang Yimou’s colorful wuxia epic Hero.

The movie where Donnie Yen really won me over was Iron Monkey, also directed by Hark and also featuring choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping. Yen plays Wong Fei-hung’s father in the film and fights alongside the title hero, who is part Robin Hood and part Zorro. I pretty much wore out my VHS copy of Iron Monkey back in the day because it’s such a dazzling display of wirework and frenzied undercranking. Above is a short clip of Yen fighting a couple of thugs, with his signature (and wireless) leaping triple-kick at the end.

Donnie Yen’s skills as a performer would develop over the years as he worked on more films, including fight choreography duties on Highlander: Endgame and Blade II, both of which he also appeared in.

One of his great breakthroughs as an actor and choreographer was Wilson Yip’s SPL: Sha Po Lang, which was retitled Kill Zone in the United States. (Not quite as elegant as the astrology allusion in the Chinese title.) This gritty crime/corrupt cop movie allowed Yen to incorporate MMA-style fighting and grappling into the choreography. In the climactic finale above, Yen squares off against Sammo Hung in a brutal, brutal throwdown.

The popularity of SPL led to another Yip/Yen collaboration called Flash Point. While not as good as SPL overall, Flash Point does have a great final fight. Here we have Yen squaring off against Collin Chou, best known to American audiences as Seraph, the underused bodyguard for the Oracle in the Matrix sequels.

Yen’s biggest movies have come recently with the Ip Man films, loosely (very loosely) based on the life of Wing Chun martial artist Yip Man. (Among Man’s many students was Bruce Lee.) In the first movie (superior to the sequel, in my opinion), Yen plays the title character, a noble and principled man fighting for the dignity of the Chinese as the country is being occupied by Imperial Japan. Yen learned Wing Chun for the role, and above is an image from one of the great and more serious fight scenes in the film.

There’s still little word on what the screenplay for Kung-Fu is like or what filmmakers will eventually do with the material, but the choice for the lead seems clear to me given Yen’s career. I’ll leave you with a clip from Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, which is something of a sequel to the great Jet Li movie Fist of Legend (which itself is a remake of the great Bruce Lee movie Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection). Yen plays the title character who starts dressing like Kato from The Green Hornet and fighting the occupied Japanese forces in China.

Yen incorporated some Jeet Kun Do into the film’s action choreography as a tribute to Bruce Lee, and perhaps casting Yen as the lead in Kung-Fu would be a fine tribute to Lee in a roundabout way.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.