DVD Fist Of Legend
Bruce Lee is commonly regarded as the greatest martial arts film star, from Eastern to Western audiences, from critics to commentators, from action-aficionados to martial artists. His untimely death in 1973 cemented his position as the most influential, iconic figure in martial arts cinema. Although his 1972 Fist Of Fury (also known as The Chinese Connection) is not considered his most seminal work, the idea of remaking any Bruce Lee film is a risky one. With Fist Of Legend, Gordon Chan not only created a film that exceeds the original but helped launch the career of an actor who has the talent to be heir to Bruce Lee’s kingdom, Jet Li.
Jet Li plays Chen Zhen, a Chinese engineering student in 1930s Japan. He is forced to tolerate the abuse of a Japanese karate school, The Black Dragon Clan, who resent the presence of any Chinese students. With far superior fighting skills, however, he humiliates the thugs with bone-crunching ease.
When the fight is broken up by the Black Dragon Clan’s wise and humble sensei Fumio Funakochi (the estimable Yasuaki Kurata), Chen Zhen is made aware of the death of his master – who was a father figure to him throughout his childhood – Huo Yuanjia, during a challenge with a rival Japanese school. Against the protestations of his love Mitsuko Yamada (Shinobu Nakayama), Chen Zhen returns to his native Shanghai, under Japanese protectorate/military occupation.
Back at his kung fu school, Jing Wu, where his best friend Huo Ting-en (Chin Siu-ho) is now master, Chen Zhen sets out to discover the truth behind his master’s death and take his revenge. His first act is to confidently stride into the Japanese school to challenge Ryoichi Akutagawa (Jackson Liu), the man who allegedly killed Huo Yuanjia, and defeat the entire student body of the school without breaking a sweat.
Chen’s suspicions are confirmed: there is no way his master would have been defeated by Akutagawa, so there must have been foul play. He orders the exhumation of his master’s body and proves he was poisoned. In a land of simmering racial tension, Chen Zhen’s battle for justice takes on national importance. As well as facing suspicion and betrayal in his own school and intimidation by the Black Dragon Clan, Chen Zhen must also take on the Japanese military, led by the ruthless, merciless and seemingly-unbeatable General Fujita (Billy Chow), if he is ever to avenge his beloved master…
Jet Li takes on the character of Chen Zhen with aplomb. He manages to make it his own, despite the heritage of the role and Bruce Lee’s unavoidable presence. He was already a huge star among Hong Kong cinema audiences with films including Once Upon A Time In China and Tai-Chi Master but it was Fist Of Legend, and his performance of such visceral intensity, that put the Jet on the global map. He is not only a martial artist of colossal talent but he is a talented actor who can express a plethora of emotions with simple glances.
Chen Zhen enters into a fight with such stoic confidence giving the non-nonsense – but immensely difficult – choreographed moves extra weight and power. Chen Zhen is a character who does not focus on how his fighting looks. In his own words, he does not care how he fights, “if it works, it’s a good one.” This is challenged by a stellar performance by Yasuaki Kurata as the wise Japanese master. He is dynamic, whether he is fighting or mentoring, and represents noble values of Japanese culture not seen by militaristic Imperial Empire represented by General Fujita.
A fight scene in the Japanese school sees Chen defeat a room bursting full of karate students. It is now common to see one man take on dozens of opponents – from The Matrix to Kill Bill – but these films were inspired by this scene. After defeating every single opponent, leaving many unconscious on the floor, the shot of Chen Zhen tying his shoelaces exudes such charisma that any thoughts of Bruce Lee are put to the back of the mind.
Sequences are much more visceral and realistically handled than in many martial arts films.
Jet Li’s dichotomy between raw, exciting action and a commitment to an emotional core puts Gordon Chan as a wise option for director. Where some, if not most, martial arts films have weak plots and the role of the viewer is simply to wait until the next choreographed set piece, Gordon Chan has endeavoured to create a narrative that will engage in between the explosive action. So 1930s Kyoto and Shanghai come to life; a break in the action for a court room drama loses none of the film’s excitement; and the racial tensions are explored but cleverly toned down by Chan and incorporates Chen’s romance with Mitsuko. She follows Chen to Shanghai but is not allowed to stay at Jing Wu due to her Japanese nationality, leading Chen to leave the school and live with Mitsuko in the wilderness, briefly. The fighting, rather than being the backbone to the film, takes its rightful place as its muscle. The narrative is strong enough and handled with high levels of care and ability to be as equally engrossing as the fight scenes.
That is not to say the fights and choreography do not perform. Sequences are much more visceral and realistically handled than in many martial arts films. With limited wire work and ostentatious acrobatics, Li’s abilities – from one-handed pull-ups to drunken Western boxing – are utilised to the best effect. Woo-Ping Yuen was helming the action direction and he succeeds in producing fiercely fought sequences that all offer something unique. Smaller sets are used effectively as they are destroyed with every fight and every punch sounds like a bomb going off (think Indiana Jones). There is much more than his assault on the Japanese school, including Chen Zhen’s duel with Huo Ting-en, which represents a battle between Chen’s evolving, bricolage approach to martial arts and Huo Ting-en’s more traditional teaching of kung fu. There is also his blindfolded encounter with the Japanese master Fumio Funakochi, which teaches Chen Zhen that there is more to fighting than winning – there is also a need to learn. Then, of course, there is the extended and exhausting finale against the evil General Fujita, which goes on and on, but never loses potency and is constantly adrenaline-charged.
Special mention must go to the first fight sequence in the film, however. When confronted in the classroom by the Black Dragon Clan, he defeats them with bone-crunching moves that, at times, are difficult to watch. From dislocating shoulders to breaking knees to bending back fingers, he beats them down entirely. When Fumio Funakochi stops the fight saying Chen Zhen was “showing mercy” to his students, you realise how easily Chen could have killed these men without trying. Woo-ping Yuen’s later work, including The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle, as well as Fearless and The Forbidden Kingdom (also starring Jet Li), all show obvious influence from Fist Of Legend.
There are faults. The ending is feeble: after the inevitable result to the final showdown, Fist Of Legend forgets that the rest of the film’s exploration of cultural divisions is underplayed and ends with a scene showing the Chinese resistance forming. Fist Of Legend is the story of one man’s quest for truth, justice and vengeance which happens to play out with national significance. The Chinese resistance is only hinted at, as the “sleeping elephant,” so the ending is underdeveloped. Joseph Koo’s soundtrack is another weak link. The riffs are standardly composed but bizarrely performed with electric guitars and synthesisers. It detracts from the power of the film and is sometimes risible.
Fist Of Legend is a hugely enjoyable action film with an engaging story to hold the actions sequences together. The choreography is grounded and stylish and it has an appeal which is universal. Whether you are a long time martial arts fan or a newcomer to the genre, Fist Of Legend is entertaining, stylish and romps along at 100 minutes. Like Chen Zhen, it is no-nonsense, raw and packs a powerful punch. And a roundhouse kick.
See The Film For Yourself!
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