For many moviegoers outside Asia, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the introduction to Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen. It wasn’t the first Hollywood film Yen’s been in — Yen’s American debut was in Blade II, and he played the bad guy in Shanghai Knights — but as the Force-sensitive Chirrut Îmwe, his rallying cry won fans and is on its way to becoming an iconic icon meme. But before Star Wars, Yen was already dominating movies as a legit leading man and bona fide badass.
Trained in a number of disciplines including Wing Chun, Muay Thai, boxing, Hapkido, Taekwondo, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Yen popularized UFC-style choreography for action movies, which is now standard issue in films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Beginning with the obscure 1983 film Shaolin Drunkard from Yuen Woo-ping, Yen’s career spans decades, so here are six standout movies to peep more of Chirrut doing what he does best.
1. Kill Zone (2005)
Better known with the less-generic title SPL: Sha Po Lang outside the U.S., Kill Zone was a noir extravaganza that also starred the legendary Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, and Wu Jing. Yen plays the main protagonist, a cop replacing a squad’s beloved inspector with a terminal injury, who pursues a notorious triad boss. Yen has a few standout fights in the film — his knife fight with Wu Jing looks ripped from a video game — but his final fight with Sammo Hung’s large and deceptively agile crime boss is a neo-classic that can’t be missed.
2. Dragon Tiger Gate (2006)
In his early 40s, Yen inexplicably played a teenager in Dragon Tiger Gate, based on the Chinese comic book (manhua) Oriental Heroes. The absurdity of seeing a 40-ish Donnie Yen — who, admittedly, is in better shape than most people are at 30, or 20 — doesn’t get in the way of the legitimately dazzling choreography, which makes up for the rest of the film’s shortcomings.
3. Flash Point (2007)
If Yen wasn’t already a star by 2007’s Flash Point, it was decided after he showed off jaw-dropping displays of physicality in this revolutionary piece of action cinema. Incorporating MMA techniques into its fight scenes — watch out for German suplexes and BJJ ground grappling — which all look as graceful as ballet. Donnie Yen steals the show until the final fight with Collin Chou (The Matrix Reloaded), where both men throw down in a classic matchup.
4. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2011)
A sequel to the mythical Fist of Legend that starred Jet Li, Yen took Li’s place as Chen Zhen in a stylish period film that begins in World War I and continues to before the Second Sino-Japanese War. The opening scene where Yen sweeps German soldiers is a novel sight you’ll never see in any war movie.
Although the nationalism in the film can be disorienting, it’s best when it playfully homages the legacy of Bruce Lee, who played Chen Zhen in his 1972 classic Fist of Fury. Check out Yen wear the Kato getup and you’ll wish this is what was in The Green Hornet.
5. The Ip Man Trilogy (2008-2016)
While “biographical” is a loose description, Yen’s Ip Man trilogy dramatically recreates the life and hardships of Yip Man, the Wing Chun grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee. Also set around the Sino-Japanese War in the early 20th century, the three period films are pure visual candy as Yen’s Ip Man fights for survival and national pride against hordes of karate students, rival kung-fu masters, boxers, and “Iron” Mike Tyson himself as a buff American property developer muscling his way into Ip Man’s town.
All three Ip Man movies can’t be missed, even if the first one is perhaps the best of the bunch. But only Ip Man 3 has Mike Tyson speaking legit Mandarin Chinese, so it’s really a toss up.
6. Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
Still one of the best martial arts films of all time, Once Upon a Time in China II pits Jet Li against Donnie Yen, both in the prime of their youth, in a stunning spectacle. In one instance Yen fashions, of all things, wet laundry into weapon in a way which would leave MacGuyver speechless. The film has become hard to find, as DVDs of the Once Upon a Time in China franchise are out of print, so if you get the chance to witness the film, take it. You won’t regret it.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is now in theaters.