Tired of winter outside your window? News updates about the pandemic get you down? In that case, grab some popcorn and jump onto your couch. In this special list, we are going to provide you with some of the early motion pictures from Donnie Yen’s filmography which are definitely worth checking out. Although many Western viewers associate the martial artist mainly with the Ip Man series and Hollywood blockbusters (for example, Rogue One), Donnie actually starred in lots of awesome 90s action-packed movies from Hong Kong. Without further ado, let’s proceed:
In the Line of Duty IV (1989)
It can be said without a shadow of a doubt that director Yuen Woo-ping discovered Donnie Yen and was largely responsible for kick-starting his career. After making a debut in Drunken Tai Chi (1984), Donnie was given the main role of a hot-headed cop in the fourth entry of In the Line of Duty franchise, a series about badass police officers engaging in death-defying stunts and exciting fist fights.
Synopsis: Seattle, USA. Police officers are monitoring a Chinese drug smuggling operation. A local cop witnesses the trade in which a CIA agent takes part. He takes a photo of the agent and tries to escape, but he gets shot by the drug dealers. In his dying moment, he passes on the photo negatives to a harbour worker, Luk (Yuen Yat-chor). Luk barely survives the confrontation with the dealers and, fearing for his life, he flees to Hong Kong. Considered to be a suspect who participates in the smuggling endeavour, Luk is now wanted by the police. Inspector Yeung (Cynthia Khan) and Captain Yan (Donnie Yen) are sent to Hong Kong in order to find Luk; however, they are repeatedly interrupted in their search by Captain Wong (Michael Wong).
From beginning to the end, the movie is filled with bombastic action set pieces revolving around the graceful Cynthia Khan and the brass Donnie Yen. Be it a confrontation with a bloodthirsty biker, fight on top of a speeding ambulance, or sliding down the elevator shaft, all sequences crafted under the watchful eye of Yuen Woo-ping are breathtaking and definitely stand the test of time. Both actors have many opportunities to shine in the film, and Cynthia as well as Donnie seem to be at the top of their game.
Tiger Cage 2 (1990)
Before discussing Tiger Cage 2, it has to be noted that Donnie already played a supporting role in Yuen Woo-ping’s first explosive thriller about police officers on the edge. Nevertheless, in Tiger Cage 2, the “sequel in name only”, we can appreciate the grandeur and prowess of Donnie in full spectrum.
Synopsis: Mandy (Rosamund Kwan) is a lawyer at a prestigious company; however, she witnesses a brutal murder in the parking lot in the course of which a suitcase filled with money laundered by mobsters goes missing. The mobsters assume that Mandy may be in the possession of the money, so they go after her. Due to unexpected circumstances, the lawyer bumps into a hot-headed cop called Dragon (Donnie Yen). The two are framed for killing Mandy’s friend, Petty (Carol Cheng). As a result, Mandy and Dragon are on the run from the gangsters and the police. With the help of a fellow worker from the company, David (David Wu), the trio decides to find the money and clear their names.
Tiger Cage 2 is a film produced by the famous D&B company and basically made by the same team behind In the Line of Duty 4. Donnie Yen finally takes over the wheel as a leading man in this film and we see him battle such popular “bad guys” as Michael Woods and John Salvitti. Even Cynthia Khan herself makes a small appearance as Inspector Yeung. With regard to action, Yuen Woo-ping really tried to push the envelope with this project. The epic sword fight between Donnie and John Salvitti is a must-see for everyone!
New Dragon Gate Inn (1992)
This time, it was the legendary director/producer Tsui Hark who decided to utilise Donnie in his next project. New Dragon Gate Inn is actually a remake of the 1967 classic wuxia film and sees the appearance of many Hong Kong stars, including Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, and Maggie Cheung.
Synopsis: Tsao Siu-yan (Donnie Yen) is a despotic ruler of a Chinese province, acting above the law and above the Emperor. In order to maintain his growing power, Tsao Siu-yan eliminates the defence minister and uses his two young children as bait for General Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung Ka-fai). The children are eventually saved by Yau Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin), a swordswoman and lover of General Chow, and escorted to Dragon Inn, a place run by a shady woman known as Jade (Maggie Cheung). However, Tsao Siu-yan follows in hot pursuit, determined to crush all potential rebels in his province.
It is worth checking out New Dragon Gate Inn particularly to see Donnie Yen as the bad guy. This movie marks a breakaway from his previous roles of heroic protagonists. In addition, Donnie’s character has a pretty gruesome death in this one. It is also a pleasure to see him fighting Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung Ka-fai.
Iron Monkey (1993)
Undeniably, the best movie that came out of the collaboration between Yuen Woo-ping and Donnie is Iron Monkey, a tale about too-cool-for-school medicine men fighting a corrupt Shaolin monk that became a fictional origin story of Wong Fei-hung, the creator of the Hung Ga style of Chinese martial arts.
Synopsis: By day, Yang Tianchun (Yu Rongguang) is an ordinary physician treating people in need; however, under the cover of darkness, he becomes Iron Monkey, an elusive vigilante who robs the rich and helps the poor. In the meantime, Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen), also a medicine man and martial artist from Foshan, arrives in town with his young son, Wong Fei-hung (Angie Tsang). Due to a misunderstanding, Wong Kei-ying is accused of being an Iron Monkey, but the vigilante in question steps into action and fights Wong. When a Shaolin traitor named Hin-hung takes over the administrative office, two unlikely partners have to join forces in order to save Wong’s son.
It comes as no surprise that Iron Monkey was analysed by film expert Mark Cousins in his popular documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). The movie is a thrilling action classic with wonderful performances of Donnie and Yu Rongguang. The popularity of Iron Monkey inevitably led to the making of a sequel in 1996, but that film has nothing to do with the original’s storyline.
A word caution: Make sure to check out the original, uncut Hong Kong version of the film. Unfortunately, the American release from Miramax has many scenes trimmed, mistranslated, or accompanied by new sound effects and a music score.
Wing Chun (1994)
Donnie teamed-up with director Yuen Woo-ping yet again for the next kung-fu project. The film Wing Chun is an attempt to tell the life story of a woman who invented the famous fighting style that is nowadays practiced across the globe.
Synopsis: Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh) lives with her family in a mountain village and runs a tofu shop. With her unique kung-fu style, she fends off unexpected ruffians as well as outrageous admirers who wish to marry her. On one occasion, two bandit brothers Flying Chimpanzee and Flying Monkey assault a young widow, Charmy (Catherine Hung), and Wing Chun stands in her defence. This incident triggers an even greater conflict in the course of which the bandits kidnap the widow. Wing Chun rushes to save her and she is aided by a childhood friend, Pok-to (Donnie Yen), a man who is hopelessly in love with Wing Chun.
Wing Chun plays out as a light-hearted comedy of mistakes with many dazzling fight sequences from Michelle Yeoh and Donnie. The two leads have a great chemistry together and it is quite a shame that they did only one more movie together; that is, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Still, I greatly enjoy Wing Chun for what it is and revisit it from time to time.
These were our recommendations. Is there a particular Donnie Yen movie you love? Do you know any other early-Donnie flicks that should be on the list? Please let us know in the comments. Thank you for reading!