How Donnie Yen's Early Hollywood Roles Wasted The Action Icon

It took many years before Hollywood movies began to make full use Donnie Yen’s potential as an action star. For too long, the actor was underutilized in American productions. Now, he has a tremendous amount of star power in both the Hong Kong film industry and Hollywood, having amassed an impressive body of work on both continents.

Today, Donnie Yen is arguably the top contemporary martial arts star, due in large part to his critically-acclaimed performances and kung fu moves in the Ip Man movies. His roles in these Hong Kong movies attracted the attention of Hollywood studios, who subsequently cast him in various action films, including a few big-name franchises. In 2016, he joined the expansive Star Wars universe by playing blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He also played major characters in XXX: Return of Xander Cage and Disney’s live action version of Mulan, which was naturally another massive boost to his profile. Yen is slated to star alongside Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4, as well as the upcoming live-action adaption of the popular video game Sleeping Dogs.

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What Yen has done in the late 2010s and what he has on the horizon shows that Hollywood has developed an appreciation of his talents, but the same can’t be said for the state of his career in the 2000s. Donnie Yen was totally wasted in Blade 2, which gave him no lines, only one fight scene, and an off-screen death. It was a rather forgettable role that left no memorable impression on viewers since his fight was so short. The same can be said for Highlander: Endgame, which featured him as a henchman and failed to properly show off his fighting skills. Yen didn't receive much screen-time in either film, nor did they give him any depth, which stands in stark contrast to how he was handled in Hong Kong's movies.

The problem with his early Hollywood roles isn’t that Yen had yet to prove himself, because he certainly had at this stage in his career. In 1990 alone, Yen headlined two Hong Kong cop movies, Tiger Cage 2 and In the Line of Duty 4: Witness, which highlighted Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills with well-choreographed fight scenes. Tiger Cage 2, for example, demonstrated that Yen had an aptitude for Jackie Chan-style comedy and action, but Hollywood failed to draw upon these elements. Over the next few years, Yen landed starring roles in a long list of films, including Once Upon a Time in China II, Circus Kid, and Iron Monkey, the latter being an iconic kung fu movie which highlighted Yen's range as an actor and capabilities as a martial artist.

The action sequences and acting performances that Yen was known for in the Hong Kong industry were clear indications of the potential he had, but it wasn’t until Ip Man that American studio executives really started to take notice. Hollywood may have been a bit late to the punch, but it’s good that Yen is finally getting his due in big-budget action movies. With Sleeping Dogs and John Wick: Chapter 4 around the corner, American audiences may be seeing quite a lot of Donnie Yen on the big screen over the next few years.

More: Why Jackie Chan Turned Down Hong Kong's Biggest Kung Fu Studio

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