Experts Roundup – Episode 1: The Rise of Donnie Yen

This is a completely new kind of post for Budomate where we decided to invite the best action movie experts and bloggers to discuss a topic and give a personal opinion.

Every episode we will be hosting a SPECIAL GUEST who will join us behind the table and maybe even stop our hot discussion and point us into the right direction.

Episode 1

In the first episode the 13 experts tried to find out why Donnie didn’t catch his wave of popularity with Blade and Highlander movies in 90s, and will today’s popularity affect the quality of his future films.

Our special guest today is Mike Leeder, the walking encyclopaedia of Asian cinema and the man behind almost every movie produced in Hong Kong and China. Read my full interview with him here.

So without further ado let’s start and talk about The Rise of Donnie Yen.

David from M.A.A.C.

Website / Twitter

If I’m not mistaken, Donnie was hired first and foremost as a fight choreographer and his cameo role was not enough to showcase what he is capable of to leave a strong impression on the audience. Donnie is very picky about the roles, he turned down a role in the Expendables as the script and the character must click.

Michael from KiaiKick

Website / Twitter

Highlander wasn’t a very good movie even though the fight between Adrian Paul and Yen was the high point of the film. Blade 2, on the other hand, was a great film, but Yen wasn’t given enough to do as he wasn’t allowed to upstage Snipes. By this time he wasn’t a big star in Asia.

Phil from Eastern Film Fans

Website / Twitter

There’s no doubt that Donnie Yen stood out in his Blade appearance but he was never going to get the attention that Wesley Snipes, Luke Goss or even Ron Pearlman had. At Highlander Endgame big names such as Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul overshadow Donnie Yen. For Asian film junkies his talent was there, but the western audience wasn’t familiar with Donnie Yen.

Of course, Donnie Yen will tread his own path but its a difficult balancing act. On one hand, Hollywood will sit up and take note and he’ll be given projects for his certain set of skills, Xander Cage being one. I think at this stage of his career he is balancing that quite well.

Chris from Bulletproof Action

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No offense to Blade or Highlander but even combined those movie franchises do not come close to the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars. Rogue One put more eyeballs on Donnie Yen than ever before and his performance in the film was a show stealer. I am not sure Yen’s increased popularity is a factor, I think the longer anyone is in the movie business people are always going to look back at “the good ol’ days” and say a star’s movies aren’t as good as they used to be.

John from Action Flix

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I had just recently discovered Donnie before those films and when they came out, I was even more of a fan but I think those films didn’t have the crossover appeal that Star Wars and XXX have. Yes, they are popular but Star Wars and XXX have bridged more of a gap between genre fans and regular movie goers. Rogue One definitely cemented his Western stardom because it is such an iconic franchise and everyone loves it. I think the time is just right with him doing mainstream projects.

Matt from Blood Brothers

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The quality of films and roles that he was getting was substandard in that time period. Those films just didn’t connect with audiences. Highlander: Endgame was going to end up killing the franchise and Blade II was a penned follow-up and that just doesn’t help to get an actor to break into the mainstream. Shanghai Knights drew the biggest interest even if he played the villain. Western audiences don’t even remember him in those films if they remember the films at all.

He’s already stated in interviews that he doesn’t need a western audience to accomplish the films he wants to make, but he certainly chose two films recently to earn him one. As for the quality of the films that is always up in the air. It’s not like all of his films from Hong Kong are pure gold, so I’m sure he is going to do what he does and keep it up.

Lee from Film Combat Syndicate

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Putting him in Highlander and Blade 2 was nice exposure in the eyes of Donnie’s fans but at a studio level, there was still a brick wall for minority progression. Donnie was no Jackie and even then, before AND after, Jackie had to overcome his share of studio recalcitrance from time to time. At any rate, thereafter it was probably good that Donnie had prospects elsewhere and kept going in working in places like the U.K., Germany and even Japan.

Donnie’s casting in Rogue One and Xander Cage worthy, both becoming box office hits at home and abroad. I think it quite sucks that it took so long as much as the corporate end of things is what decide this. However, I am glad that it has and even happier that it has earned Donnie the relevance he’s so deserved.

Ben from Kung Fu Movie Guide

Website / Twitter

I feel Donnie wasn’t given the best roles back then in the west probably because Hollywood already had an Asian kung fu star in both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. With Jet taking lead roles in the US and enjoying success with his Luc Besson films in Europe, I feel that Hollywood – even if they recognized Donnie’s talent – still weren’t sure which roles to give him. I do worry that Donnie could be in danger of being typecast again by America as another ‘Asian kung fu guy’ – like in the new xXx movie – when we know he is capable of delivering much more. As he gets older, I wouldn’t be surprised if he concentrates more on this type of non-kung fu role in Asia, rather than the characters he is currently being offered by Hollywood.

With Donnie now in his early 50s, age will soon take its toll – although he clearly shows no sign of slowing down! He is currently in the highly enviable position of being in demand in both the east and the west, so I look forward to seeing what road he decides to go down over the next few years.

Hugo from Asian Film Strike

Website / Twitter

Highlander was an international flop that sunk careers rather than boost them. We should be thankful Donnie Yen escaped unscathed. Blade II was a success, but he was grossly underused in it. Both movies would not be much different without Donnie Yen.

It’s good to keep in mind that Donnie Yen has not yet reached in Hollywood the status that Jackie Chan and Jet Li have enjoyed there in the past: we don’t know yet if the western public would turn out for a Donnie-led film.

Justin from Action Movie Fanatix

Website / Twitter

I suspect it was due to his roles being secondary or even tertiary type of characters. He was really buried in the background of those movies. Jackie Chan and Jet Li were presented to US audiences as leading men and that’s what they’ve always been. In my opinion, he’s ready made for US audiences, he is a great martial artist, can act pretty well and understands the US cultures.

There’s a chance that if he had caught a wave of popularity earlier in his career, we might have seen him in some sillier projects like we’ve seen Jackie Chan in but since Donnie Yen is more serious about roles got his chance in the US due to the widespread release of Ip Man on NetFlix. Everyone’s bound to have a few stinkers along the way though.

Mike Fury

Website / Twitter

Those of us who’ve been watching Donnie Yen for years, mainly in his Hong Kong work, already know he is super talented. We’ve seen his best stuff. Eastern stars picking up small roles in Hollywood is good exposure but unfortunately, they’ve been underused, historically speaking. However, I feel it’s changing now. In films like Rogue One and Xander Cage, the ensemble setup, and characters are much better written and a stronger vessel for someone like Donnie to show what he can do. I know people who’d never seen a Donnie Yen film leave the cinema and say he was their favorite in Rogue One!

Whether or not the quality is affected comes down to the scripts he gets. For Donnie, with franchises like Star Wars and xXx under his belt, he has a pretty great launchpad for his Hollywood career which can only be a good thing.

Peter from Bags of Action


I think with both those films, the circumstances weren’t right for him to break out. Blade films are so synonymous with Wesley Snipes that the rest of the cast doesn’t get as much attention from the viewer. With Highlander, I think we came to the franchise at the point when most of the audience had pretty much given up on it.

His star is definitely on the rise and I would imagine that his Hollywood roles will get bigger. I imagine villain roles and second co-star on big films will happen more and more now, but I’d love to see him star in a western movie rather than rely on a typical Hollywood lead to be alongside him as a co-star. Kung Fu Killer made me think he could do something huge potentially.

Derek from Action A Go Go

Website / Twitter

Just like with Chan’s earlier attempts to break into American film, timing and misuse always play a part. Yen didn’t have a speaking role in Blade II. If that film had been directed by anyone else but Guillermo Del Toro then I would assume that the director just didn’t know how to use him. As for Highlander, that franchise was kind of on its last leg when Endgame came out. I don’t think anyone could’ve broken out from that movie.

I expect Yen to continue on the same track he’s always been on career-wise. Rogue One made people notice him in the states finally, but Asian cinema will always be where he will shine the most.

Mike Leeder Interview

Special Guest – Mike Leeder

Timing, I don’t think the world was ready for Donnie back then. Highlander 4 was a great little debut, the scene in the loft “what do you know about honor?” is a great little sequence and is a very cool introduction for Donnie, but the problem is they then didn’t know what to do with him.

Blade II, same thing they didn’t really know what to do with Donnie’s character, having him die off camera or with him as a choreographer, its a pity as Brad Allan would later work so well with Guillermo Del Toro on Hellboy 2 as action director and choreographer.

In Rogue One and XXX they made the right use of Donnie, he gets to show his incredible physicality but also his strengths as an actor, he’s also matured as a performer and I think that helps too.

Look back at Donnie’s career, there have been movies that might not have delivered where they could have been, but its sometimes for reasons beyond his control. I wasn’t a huge fan of Iron Monkey when it first came out, for some reason, it just didn’t strike a chord with me and I avoided watching it again for years, and now I really enjoy it.

I also find that sometimes people seem to have built expectations for a movie based on disinformation or somebody implying something rather than the truth. When we began shooting Chasing the Dragon, people were claiming oh this is misinformation they knew it was really KOWLOON WALLED CITY we were shooting….when it wasn’t. Chasing the Dragon isn’t a martial arts movie, it’s an epic action drama like The Godfather, there are fights etc but just because it doesn’t have fights like Tiger Cage 2 does that mean it’s not quality, it’s not that kind of movie. Sometimes audiences need to broaden their minds…


As we can see most experts agreed that timing wasn’t right and the world wasn’t ready for Donnie. The same time directors didn’t know how to use his abilities, but luckily now Hollywood sees his potential and Star Wars parlayed its charm into his career.

Hopefully, you liked the new format and will leave your meaning in the comments below. Join the discussion as we are all action fans here and every opinion matters.