Donnie Yen Brought Sugar Ray Leonard And Ip Man Punches To John Wick: Chapter 4

Donnie Yen is the premier martial arts showman on Earth. He is the heir to Jackie Chan, who was Bruce Lee's successor, and, like those legends, his fighting style is a fluid amalgam of hand-to-hand combat techniques. Watching Yen ply his craft is like listening to a vintage De La Soul track. His fight scenes are an exhilarating, expertly choreographed blur of disciplines. Yen samples from Tai Chi, karate, Taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, aikido, wrestling, judo and so much more. And when you spot a reference to a patented punch, kick, or feint from another film or a notable fighter, you get every bit as giddy as the first time you heard the Beastie Boys blend John Williams' "Jaws" theme with Bernard Herrmann's legendary "Psycho" cue in the song, "Egg Man," on their "Paul's Boutique" album.

At the age of 59, Yen shows no signs of slowing down, nor has he betrayed a hint of boredom. His work in Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 4" is lethally nimble and as inventive as ever. As the blind High Table assassin Caine, he is blackmailed into killing his friend Wick to protect his daughter. Though Keanu Reeves has become a remarkably capable martial arts performer in his own right, Yen is unbeatable. His full arsenal is on display, which includes spiffy references to his past work and one of his favorite boxers.

The sweet science of 'John Wick: Chapter 4'

Now that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is globally ascendant, boxing often gets maligned as a boringly limited form of combat. Don't tell Donnie Yen this. He may be a major proponent of MMA, but the man is a fan of the sweet science. In an interview with, "John Wick: Chapter 4" director Chad Stahelski was asked about a showy wind-up punch Yen throws during the film's first bravura action sequence. The filmmaker gave Yen full credit for the move, which was an homage to one of the performer's favorite pugilists.

"[T]hat's all Donnie, a Sugar Ray Leonard reference," Stahelski said. "He's a huge Sugar Ray Leonard fan; he's put that in 'Flashpoint,' and he's put that in a lot of his films. Funny thing, I had lunch with Donnie yesterday. We brought that up a lot. A lot of his hometown audiences don't really know who Sugar Ray Leonard was in China, so they don't get that cool reference."

Having grown up during the '70s and '80s heyday of middleweight boxing, this gladdens my heart. Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, and Roberto Duran were the epitome of the phrase "styles make fights." Hagler and Hearns wedded superb technique with devastating power, while Duran got into the body and inflicted tremendous damage with his granite hands. These men had no clear advantage over each other. It was just a question of desire.

And no one could weather the punishment of a 15-round title fight like Leonard.

Speed recognizes speed

Sugar Ray Leonard, the greatest of this class, was a finesse fighter. He possessed Muhammad Ali-like footwork, and frustrated opponents with his elusiveness. He also had stunningly quick hands with which he could land a dazzling spray of combinations. The move Chad Stahelski is referring to is a showboat punch inspired by Popeye. When Leonard was shaming Roberto Duran in their 1980 rematch, he started winding up his right arm and firing sharp left jabs into the Panamanian pugilist's kisser. The punches did little damage, but they punctuated his clear dominance of Duran, who allegedly cried "No más" at the end of the bout's eighth round.

It makes perfect sense that Donnie Yen would be a Leonard fan. Yen's onscreen stock-in-trade is speed. He isn't a physically intimidating man, but his whirring repertoire of fistic fury is elegantly Leonard-esque. According to Stahelski, Yen also worked in a reference to Leonard's signature "Ip Man" punch:

"[Yen] said, 'Hey man, I'm going to do an Ip Man, I'm gonna do a straight blast and speed punch,' and then Donnie started laughing. 'I don't know why, I just feel like I need to do this.' So I'm like, 'All right, do it, let's shoot it, let's see if we like it.' And he shoots it, and everybody behind the camera starts laughing. He's so f*****g fast."

That he is. The martial arts are forever morphing, and we are blessed to have a genius like Yen honoring the history of combat to enlighten and entertain moviegoers the world over.