A regular player in Hong Kong movies of the 90’s, Donnie Yen seemed fated to play bad guys in big movies, and good guys in small films. Known for his intensity, producers just weren’t willing to take a risk on him as a leading man. And then, in 2005, he appeared in Kill Zone (better known by its Chinese title SPL: Sha Po Lang) and everything changed. Choreographing the action and starring in the film, Yen introduced numerous styles from outside Hong Kong, including Mixed Martial Arts, judo, and wrestling, and his co-stars, Sammo Hung and Wu Jing, were both able to keep up with him. SPL set the screen on fire, and Donnie Yen hasn’t looked back since. His rise has been as swift and as sudden as his onscreen fighting.
Born in China, he grew up in Boston, and was trained in martial arts by his mother, Mark Bow-sim. As a teenager he met legendary Hong Kong action director Yuen Wo-ping, who took him under his wing and brought him to Hong Kong. His first two movies were Yuen’s Drunken Tai Chi and Tiger Cage and then Tsui Hark cast him as the sincerely misguided General Lan opposing Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China 2 and everyone wanted to know, “Who was that guy?” He then starred in Iron Monkey directed by Yuen Wo-ping, a classic of mid-90’s Hong Kong cinema, but he also spent a lot of time doing TV and small parts in other films.
In 1997 and 1998, he directed two movies, Ballistic Kiss and Legend of the Wolf, which had a mixed receptions, and he started working in Hollywood. Choreographing and appearing in Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and appearing opposite Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights his poise, dignity, and savagery made an instant impression. He returned to Hong Kong and made Kill Zone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang) and then he singlehandedly redeemed Flashpoint, Wilson Yip’s follow-up film which features a final fight scene that combined kung fu, wrestling, MMA, and judo and has influenced numerous directors, and won Yen two awards (the Golden Horse and the Hong Kong Film Awards) for action choreography.
He and director Wilson Yip, as well as Sammo Hung, teamed up again for Ip Man and Ip Man 2 which was a new change for him. Not since Jet Li played Wong Fei-hung in Once Upon a Time in China has an actor stepped so comfortably into a role. The very picture of Chinese cool, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man has become an onscreen icon who has inspired prequels, sequels, and rip offs across Asia. While so many people were wondering who would be the successor to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it never occurred to them that he was right in front of us all along, and his name was Donnie Yen.