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A Primer on Donnie Yen, the Secret Star of 'Rogue One'

The martial arts star finally gets his mainstream due in Rogue One. Here are five other of his movies to check out.
December 16, 2016, 4:03pm
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

One of the best things about Rogue One's arrival in theaters this weekend is not that Star Wars fans get more Star Wars—It's that 53-year-old Donnie Yen finally gets to show his stuff before a wide American audience.

Yen, whose portrayal of blind warrior Chirrut Imwe is already drawing fanboy plaudits, belongs to a generation of Hong Kong and Chinese action heroes —Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan—who have long been superstars on the other side of the Pacific. But it's taken him some time (despite appearances in Shanghai Knights and Blade II) to catch up to their stateside popularity.

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It's easy to see why he's had to play catch-up here. Yen doesn't have Chow's smoldering charisma, Chan's comic chops, nor Li's ball-of-intensity fury. As an actor, in his non-fight scenes, Yen can sometimes be a bit underwhelming—but he sure does have some sweet moves, and those alone are enough to warrant superstardom. In his best roles he combines, crazily enough, some of the best elements of Mel Gibson, Gene Kelly, and your favorite character actor.

In the Ip Man movies, Yen often emulates Gibson's love of martyrdom and suffering—physical and emotional—while facing the odds with incredible stoicism. Like Kelly, he's maintained grace and athleticism across decades. And like your favorite character actor, he often works best—like in Rogue One—as part of a team. He's best enjoyed when paired off with other greats of his generation, both in front of and behind the camera.

One other source of Yen's appeal: Netflix's streaming service has always had its limitations, but it's never lacked for Donnie Yen movies. He's always there. If you decided to watch a kung-fu movie on some lazy Saturday afternoon, the odds are pretty good Yen was in it. His IMDB page has 70 acting credits across 32 years. He's a relentless workman, and if you don't appreciate him at first, well, there will be plenty of other opportunities.

But if you're looking for a place to stay, here are five of the best movies you'll want to catch after watching Yen kick ass in Rogue One.

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Wing Chun (1994)

This movie comes a decade into Yen's career, pairing him with Michelle Yeoh under the direction of the legendary Woo-Ping Yuen—best known to American audiences for choreographing the fight scenes in the Matrix trilogy and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This movie doesn't have nearly the epic scope of those flicks—and it's Yeoh who's the star here, who makes a hero's journey from a brave villager who takes on the bad guys to the only martial arts master capable of taking on the big bad. Yen's role here is basically comic relief—his romance with Yeoh is basically a Shakespearean mistaken-identity farce—but he still gets a few scenes to prove that, even as a sidekick, he's a worthy hero. This movie pops up now and again on Netflix; right now you can rent it on Amazon Video for $5.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)

Despite the title, the worst way to watch this movie is to think of it as a sequel to Ang Lee's epic Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Instead, it's most enjoyable if viewed as a loose, spiritual sequel to Wing Chun—bringing Yeoh, Yen, and Yuen back together for one more team-up. Yes, the story is unmemorable. And this flick tries to do a few too many things; most egregiously, it's an attempt by Netflix to cash in on one of the most popular titles in its streaming vault. Put that aside, though, to marvel at Yen and Yeoh, both fifty-somethings, as they move through set pieces with remarkable energy, grace, and beauty that the younger actors in the cast struggle to match. Available on Netflix, of course.

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Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen (2010)

It's in this flick that Yen arguably stakes his claim to the first rank of Chinese martial arts movie heroes. After all, the character of Chen Zen was originated by Bruce Lee in 1972's Fist of Fury, then revived by Jet Li in 1994's Fist of Legend. (Just in case you miss the the connection, Yen here dons a suit reminiscent of Kato, Lee's character in The Green Hornet television series.) What's great about Legend—aside from its action choreography—is its sheer style, reimagining 1930s Shanghai as a jazz-era Casablanca, with the Japanese army standing in here for the Nazis. Humphrey Bogart would feel at home on the set. Rent at Amazon Video for $2.

Ip Man trilogy (2008-present)

Ip Man is revered by martial artists as Bruce Lee's teacher, the foremost practitioner of the wing chun style of fighting: He's so famous that this is not the only movie trilogy dedicated to his biography. In this version, Yen plays Ip Man, Gary Cooper style, as a humble teacher who'd rather live peacefully with his neighbors but keeps getting called upon to defend them against villains of all stripes. There's reason to doubt the historical veracity of these movies: Ip Man 2 is basically a Chinese version of the Rocky IV's Cold War allegory, and Ip Man 3 features Yen fighting … Mike Tyson, which is goofy and glorious all at the same time. All three movies can be found on Netflix — and a fourth is in production.

Hero (2002)

This isn't Yen's movie, really, but it's still worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, the all-star cast—Jet Li! Tony Leung! Maggie Cheung! Zhang Ziyi!—and sweeping scope make this feel a bit like China's Gone With the Wind. Second: Yen gets this fight scene with Li. It's worth the full price of admission. Also available on Netflix.

Others: Bodyguards and Assassins (Amazon) is another historical epic; Kung Fu Killer (Netflix) shows Yen in contemporary action hero mode; Flash Point (Hulu) sends Yen undercover in the Triad.