by Mark Ahn
Fist of Legend came out in 1994, during, arguably, Jet Li’s most successful and my favorite portion of his career; this particular era was also the best combination of Li’s acting and physical skills. Li has played a variety of heroes, but here he plays the humble, morally upright protagonist, who consistently puts aside his personal desires for what is right.
Li’s morally upright protagonist is Chen Zen, a Chinese citizen studying abroad in Japan, only to rush home to Shanghai when he finds that his master has died under (what he later discovers to be) mysterious circumstances in a duel with a Japanese master. Along the way, he deals with the leadership of his kung fu school (Jingwu), his Japanese girlfriend, racism, and saves China from nothing less than an international incident, all while paying homage to Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury (or, The Chinese Connection), of which this is a remake. All in a day’s work.
I love that director Gordon Chan bothers with putting together a story that makes sense around the action. Fist of Legend rises above the level of many action movies by having a narrative that has characters that change. (One could argue that Chen Zen isn’t one of them, but he gets a pass as the main character.) Chan puts in almost too many moments of character beats in an effort to flesh them out, with each secondary character getting at least a few moments to have a personality; an example of this is the son of the deceased master, Ting’en (played by Chin Siu-ho), who has a particularly lengthy character arc. It distracts a little bit from the main storyline, and I sort of wish that screen time was spent on Jet Li, but I appreciate Chan’s effort to up the stakes a little bit in the fighting.
Kill Bill movies, Kung Fu Hustle, and Unleashed.
The fights here are most notable for their lack of wirework; this isn’t a fantastical fight movie, although there are some of the normal effects like adjusting film speed and guys getting pulled through windows with a cable. On the DVD commentary, Gordon Chan mentions that he tried to include the ceiling in the frame to show that there wasn’t any wirework. For the most part, it is Jet Li and his opponents at close to realistic speed, just fists and feet, and it earns the respect of the viewer for the quickness of these athlete-actors. The rhythms of the final encounter between the gigantic General Fujita and the diminutive Chen Zen (it looks like an eight to twelve inch difference in height, but it’s closer to six) plays out like its own three-act play. It’s not the close quartered, frenetic fury of something like the final battle in The Raid: Redemption, or a more gimmicky finisher like The Legend II (bench fight), but it ebbs and flows, with attacks quick and slow, where either man seems to gain the edge only to suffer multiple setbacks, only to figure out a way around the setbacks. The first time I watched it, I swore the fight lasted thirty minutes, but it’s actually ten, which I think says much about the stakes that Chan has worked hard to build up in the rest of the movie, along with the skill of the Li and Chow.
Jet Li gives a decent performance in one of his stoical hero roles; if I were to criticize, I’d say the character of Chen Zen suffers a little bit from Braveheart disease, where the hero doesn’t develop much, but starts the movie as perfectly formed. However, this is a rather common trope in most action movies, and the character never comes off as egotistical as William Wallace; the character has specific motivations and goals throughout. I thought it was an interesting choice in comparison to Bruce Lee’s performance in the character in Fists of Fury; there, Bruce Lee is a snarling beast whose eagerness to fight leads to moments of regret over the rashness of his actions. This also feeds into the exploitation vibe of Fists of Fury, which has a much more straightforward revenge narrative. Jet Li is much more controlled and composed, which probably works better for the additional narrative pieces in Fist of Legend, but there’s a part of me that wishes for a version where he plays it furious like Bruce Lee.
Jet Li (who turns 50 this year) has continued to have an interesting career, with varying degrees of success in the Hollywood system, but Fist of Legend stands out as a highlight in his work, and in the genre of modern, realistic kung fu movies.