Happy birthday (belatedly) to Donnie, and a look back at SPL (aka Kill Zone)
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It’s been a few weeks since Donnie Yen’s birthday, and I only now (for shame!) got around to posting this photo and blog. The disturbing thing (for me) about these anniversaries is that Donnie seems to be getting younger every year, while I’m quite evidently getting older (but, I hope, a little wiser, which is a nice trade!).
This year, Donnie’s lovely wife Cici held a surprise birthday party for him at Racks pool hall in Central. I turned up at the appointed hour along with the lovely
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agreed to play ball, and go along with the pretence that there was an ‘event’ going on upstairs.
Donnie was duly surprised to find the place packed with friends and fans, including his Seven Swords and Bodyguards and Assassins co-star, Leon Lai, and Ip Man producer Raymond Wong. Cici had laid on a cake in the shape of a boiling
Boston lobster. Given that Donnie hails from
Boston, Mass, this is a favourite dish, and, per Mrs. Yen, the only one that her husband can cook!
Normally a man of few words, Donnie’s speech gave shouts out to various guests, including myself, which was very nice of him. Looking around the room, I realized I probably had known Donnie longer than almost everyone except Raymond and Nansun Shi. He and I first met at the movie premiere for Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (which Raymond and Nansun’s
City had produced), and we have been friends ever since. I’ve been very happy to see Donnie finally get his due as a leading man.
For too many years, his amazing martial arts prowess was used as the spice to someone else’s stew, be it Jet Li (in Once Upon A Time In China 2 and Hero) or Jackie Chan (in Shanghai Knights). His starring roles in such epics as Iron Monkey and the Tiger Cage/In The Line Of Duty series had won him legions of fans overseas, but Donnie often seemed a prophet without honour in his own country.
The turning point in Donnie’s career came with the film SPL. I first heard about the movie when I was working as a producer on the actioner Dragon Squad. That film, also know as Dragon Heat, shared two of our stars: Sammo Hung and Simon Yam. We were worried that SPL would
with our film, that people would mistake one film for another…Worse, the word was that ‘their’ film was so bad, it couldn’t be released, and so might adversely effect our own.
I was dispatched on a secret mission to the offices of SPL producer Abba Chan. Ostensibly; I was there to view the film towards potentially acquiring the overseas sales rights. In reality, I wanted to see just how bad the damage was… I was stunned by the film, but not in the manner that I had anticipated. I don’t remember if it had the final music and sound mix, but it was evident that the SPL was just terrific. I hurried back to the Dragon Squad offices, and suggested that we just buy the rights to SPL ourselves as an investment. The suggestion was roundly rejected.
(This last decision turned out to be in my favour. After Dragon Squad wrapped, I did acquire the sales rights to SPL (on behalf of Arclight Films) and made some good money on international sales, and then sold the North American (to myself!) when I joined TWC. SPL, renamed Kill Zone, was the first Dragon Dynasty release.)
I remember meeting Peter Chan as he left an early screening of the movie. It’s a pretty good movie, isn’t it? I asked him. “It’s not a good movie,” he replied. “It’s a
great one.” What made it so special? For one thing, it saw Donnie, who I had brought back from
America to work on the first Twins Effect film, really come into his own as action director. He first brought elements of MMA into his choreography for that film, and this trend would reach its apotheosis in Flashpoint. On SPL, devotees of Brazilian jujitsu, and grappling arts in general, were impressed with the way Donnie incorporated movements from these styles into his final duel with Sammo Hung. Any number of MMA champions had appeared in earlier American films, but only Donnie made that %$#@ look good, sorry,
SPL (named from Sha Po Long, an inauspicious alignment in Chinese astrology) saw Donnie teamed, for the first time, with director Wilson Ip, who took the time to draw a fine acting performance from Yen, rather than treating him, as some previous directors had, as nothing more than a spectacular fighting machine. Donnie more than holds his own in an ensemble cast including award-winning actors Simon Yam and Liu Kai-chi. The film also provides a comeback acting
and action role for the great Sammo Hung, and breathed new life into the flagging career of kung fu
Since SPL, Donnie has never looked back, and never looked better. ‘Ip Man’ gave him his biggest hit in his best film and expectations are high for ‘Ip Man 2’, which is shooting now, and for the other films Yen has booked back-to-back. Happy birthday, indeed!
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