Before digging into the ridiculousness that is Enter the Fat Dragon, a remake of a 1978 martial arts comedy, let us take a moment to marvel at the majesty that is Donnie Yen. This actor and highly trained marital artist is capable of a wide swath of genres, slipping into each one with incredible ease: a silent vampiric killer in the delightfully bloody Blade II (2002) in the same year that he plays the honorable assassin Long Sky in Hero (2002), historical figures like Ip Man, and legendary characters like the Monkey King. He’s been one with the force fighting against seemingly unstoppable empire (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and he’s played characters as every-day as a teacher (Big Brother). There is very little in terms of character that Yen has not yet attempted and he’s left an impression in almost everything he has done. Cut short in theaters after its February 2020 release, Yen’s latest project is coming to your home on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, bringing with it the perfect respite from what ails you in the form of a hilarious throwback to 1980’s Chinese action cinema.
Supercop Fallon Zhu (Yen) always stops the bad guys wherever they appear, making sure that justice prevails in Hong Kong. There’s just one problem: he has a tendency to take everything out with him when he does it. When he gets caught up in a bank robbery on his day off, things go a little too far and this powerful force for good is sent to work in the evidence room. Not only that, but he also greatly disappoints his fiancée with his antics and she dumps him. Six months later, an opportunity arrives that might get Zhu his old job back, except the easy prisoner transport gig quickly goes sideways leaving Zhu to fend for himself against the Yakuza in Tokyo with only a few locals as allies.
The whole reason for opening this review with a breakdown of Yen’s work is because the man is up for anything. He’ll engage in ludicrous scenarios, take part in traditional garb, uplift ideals, and he’ll do each of these and more even if it includes a fart joke. The one thing I’ve yet to see Yen do is not go full-force into a performance and that’s largely why I take to his performances. He’s so present within the world he creates that, time and again, Yen convinces us that what we’re witnessing isn’t just entertainment but, for a brief period, it’s all real. That is, until Enter the Fat Dragon comes along and Yen is almost always winking at the audience. He doesn’t do it so much directly, but with the way the camera captures him, it’s almost entirely fourth wall-breaking. To this degree, out of all of his performances, Yen’s as Zhu is the closest he’s come to taking the mantle from Jackie Chan as the performer willing to do the most to entertain. Even for all its various flaws, Enter the Fat Dragon does entertain with a mix of clever stunt work, amusing performances, and a premise that’s a touch too silly to believe. The one thing it doesn’t do is use Zhu’s size as a punchline.
So let’s get into that bit first.
The ’78 version of Dragon focused on a farmer who finds himself entrenched in a gang war when trying to protect his uncle’s restaurant. Starring and directed by Sammo Hung, the film is a parody of Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon (1972) with the title being the obvious reference to Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). Hung’s Ah Lung is not as svelte as Lee and is considered far less threatening. In the 2020 version, Yen’s take on the character maintains the love of Bruce Lee films that Lung possessed and does include visual homages to Lee’s work in his fighting style. There’s even a restaurant in peril that’s tied both to the Yakuza and Zhu’s allies in Tokoyo. What Yen’s version does not do, ever, is belittle Zhu for gaining weight. He’s not considered less attractive, less capable, or even less of a threat, something which Yen’s faster than light movements likely do attribute much of that, which makes the title of the film less of a punchline and more a statement of fact. Compared to the six-pack version of Zhu that begins the film, the version at the end is certainly worthy of the title “Fat,” but it makes no difference in his ability to be a police officer, a friend, or a lover. In truth, if not for seeking to remake the ’78 version for modern audiences, the title of the film could be changed completely so as not to lose audiences who might think the film pokes fun at its central character. Honestly, the film even goes out of its way to showcase that Zhu is not an unhealthy person, he was just caught between a physical injury and a job that doesn’t support activity.
The rest of the film? It’s fine. There’s a love interest played by the engaging Niki Chow (The Cursed) who’s more often either a prop or a caricature than a fully-realized character. Louis Cheung (Ip Man 3) brings some charm to untrustworthy Commander Huang as he blames all of his failures on Zhu. New friends Thor (Jing Wong) and Charisma (Teresa Mo) give Zhu renewed meaning when his battle to retain his purpose and win back his fiancée is challenged. By the way, in a bit of meta fun, Thor’s character goes by the nickname “Hard Boiled,” which just so happens to be a film Mo starred in, a film featuring a cop who does things his own way, often blowing things up in the process, like Zhu. This is one of several little nods to the history of martial arts cinema. These characters and the villains they fight make sense within this slightly hyper-real world of slapstick martial arts. In this regard, each performance is a lovely hat-tip to the long-gone era of ‘80s action flicks. That doesn’t mean that the audience particularly cares about anything to the point that it’ll linger once over. If anything, they’ll remember Yen’s full commitment to his performance and one truly laughingly awful puppet dog.
When it’s all said and done, Enter the Fat Dragon is a solid throwback flick that honors the original film and its intent. Lee’s work remains a seminal part of cinematic and cultural history, so the jokes that made sense in ’78 likely will just as easily land now. And there’s nothing at all wrong with a film that seeks to merely entertain, to offer a respite, a distraction, from modernity. If you’re looking for that, for a way to take your mind off the world, then prepare yourself for Fallon Zhu: the Fat Dragon.
Enter the Fat Dragon Bonus Features
Two (2) film trailers
Three (3) Well Go USA preview trailers
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital beginning July 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.