Donnie Yen Is Set to Revamp a Controversial Martial Arts Franchise
After stealing the show in John Wick 4, Yen might team up with another Hollywood heavyweight.
Donnie Yen is a legend. Since bursting onto the Hong Kong action scene in the late ’80s, the actor and martial artist has established himself as one of the region’s most prolific talents. He’s no stranger to the Hollywood blockbuster, either: Even if you haven’t seen any of his fantastic Ip Man movies, you probably recognize Yen from his turns in films like Rogue One, Blade II, or Disney’s live-action Mulan remake. And then, of course, there’s John Wick: Chapter 4.
The world of Wick lives and dies on its reverence for martial arts royalty. The first film was directed by two veterans of action, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. The duo capitalized on decades of goodwill when casting their first picture, looping in legends like Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe. While Leitch went his own way after the first John Wick, the films have continued to rope in some formidable talent. It culminates in Chapter 4, which sees the likes of Yen, Scott Adkins, and Hiroyuki Sanada bringing their all to the revenge saga.
Yen is especially great as Caine, a weathered assassin who sacrificed his sight to save his daughter. His rapport with Keanu Reeves’ equally-scarred Wick is one of the film’s highlights, but Yen more than holds his own against the film’s other heavyweights. If anyone needed a reminder that Yen is That Guy, then Chapter 4 was it. The actor just turned 60, but he’s clearly got a lot more to give, and Hollywood might be taking notice.
Deadline reports that Yen’s next big project is taking shape. The actor will helm a film adaptation of Kung Fu, the classic 1970s serial that followed a martial arts master on an odyssey through the Old West. The series, which starred David Carradine, was a huge hit, but its decision to cast a white actor as a Shaolin monk has obviously not aged well. It didn’t help that the concept for the series was allegedly stolen from Bruce Lee, who’d been developing a story about a Shaolin priest roaming the Old West (that seed would eventually inspire The Warrior, which was later adapted into a series starring Andrew Koji).
Lee even auditioned for the lead role in Kung Fu, but was passed over by Warner Bros. The studio’s reasons for snubbing Lee are as problematic as you can imagine, which has since soured Kung Fu’s reputation further. Fortunately, Hollywood’s habit of whitewashing roles is (partially) behind us. Recently, Warner even rebooted Kung Fu on the now-defunct CW. The new series followed the adventures of a Chinese American woman who joined the ranks of a mystic monastery and used her Shaolin skills to become a vigilante in her hometown.
Its connections to the original Kung Fu are very, very loose, and with Arrowverse creator Greg Berlanti at the helm, it read much more like an entry into that particular franchise. It will be interesting to see how Yen deals with a much more faithful adaptation of the ’70s series.
The remake will be produced by Universal Pictures and 87North, the production company founded by Leitch. Leitch is apparently also in talks to direct, and depending on your reception to his recent films, that could be good or bad. The filmmaker has a clear eye for kinetic, bone-crunching action, but story-wise, his films don’t always connect. Atomic Blonde was great; Bullet Train was a mess of dated cultural references and hopelessly glib banter. If he helms Kung Fu, can we expect more of the latter?
Yen’s involvement might just deliver Kung Fu from any potential headaches. He pulled a similar feat on the John Wick set, fine-tuning his character to ensure he wasn’t playing another “woe-is-me blind man.” (He also strived to make his Rogue One character less stereotypical.) Either way, the remake should be in good hands. It’ll be exciting to see the next phase of Yen’s career, and another potential collaboration with a John Wick alum.