Fist of Legend
Distributed by Golden Harvest
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I first settled down to watch Fist of Legend, I thought I would be watching an older martial arts film that I had seen in the past. I was exhausted from Thanksgiving prep and just wanted to spend time with an older flick that I had already seen. But as I started watching Fist of Legend, I realized that, though it seemed familiar to me, I had actually never seen this film before. My exhaustion was washed away as I enjoyed what would turn out to be a new favorite.
Fist of Legend stars Jet Li as Chen Zhen, a Chinese martial artist sent by the master of the Jingwu School to Kyoto University in Japan to further his mind. Though not especially welcome by the Japanese, Chen Zhen is determined to complete his studies until he learns of the death of Master Huo. He returns to China, much to the chagrin of schoolmate and headmaster’s daughter Mitsuko Yamada (Shinobu Nakayama), to pay his respects.
Upon arrival, Chen Zhen finds Huo Ting’en (Chin Siu-ho), the master’s son and Chen Zhen’s old friend, has taken up the leadership roll at Jingwu School. Learning that Master Huo may have been poisoned before his final match with the leader of a rival Japanese dojo, leading to the elder’s demise, Chen Zhen vows to discover the truth. He heads to the opposing dojo and challenges the man who defeated his master (Jackson Liu) using his master’s style. The fact that Chen Zhen makes easy work of this dojo’s sensei lends credence to the idea that his master’s fight was sabotaged.
Unfortunately for Chen Zhen, he has unwittingly entered into a battle with the Japanese Imperial Army. General Fujita (Billy Chow) has plans for the location of the Jingwu School and only its demise will bring those plans to fruition. He devises a plan to set Chen Zhen up for the murder of the rival dojo’s master, taking down one of the Jingwu School’s most respected fighters and causing a rift between Chen Zhen and Ting’en who is somewhat jealous of his friend’s fighting style and charisma.
Can Chen Zhen clear his name and mend his bond with his former brother in time to prevent the demise of their cherished school?
As I watched Fist of Legend, I saw similarities to films I had watched in the past. The storylines often involve warring schools, usually Chinese versus Japanese. The enemy is usually a Japanese General of some sort, especially in period pieces like this one which takes place during the 1937 Japanese occupation of Shanghai. But there was something else that was familiar - something in the fighting style of Jet Li’s character…something in his philosophy. And then it hit me - this had to be a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. This would be confirmed for me when I watched The Man Behind the Legend, an interview with Gordon Chan, the movie’s director.
That’s not to say that this film was a direct copy of Bruce Lee’s film and his style. Too many others had tried this before with little success and Jet Li is no Bruce Lee. Instead, it is an homage to his film - a remake with a variation that pays respect to the original mastery of the first film. Jet Li may move his feet like Bruce Lee and be able to do some of Bruce Lee’s warm up exercises in the same manner, and he may speak of some of Bruce Lee’s philosophies, but Jet Li has his own fighting style and he doesn’t try to hide that. The fact that Li’s fighting style can be just as explosive as Lee’s helps things greatly.
I enjoyed the whole film, but two fight scenes in particular. In one, Chen Zhen does everything he can to avoid fighting Ting’en who has proposed a battle for the leadership of the school. The scenes are choreographed perfectly with Chen Zhen somehow deftly blocking, avoiding or sometimes rolling with Ting’en’s attacks until, when he can no longer accept being attacked, Chen Zhen shows the power of his new fighting style, a mix between the styles of the school in which he was taught and the Japanese dojos which he has observed.
The second and most powerful fight is that of Chen Zhen and Sensei Fumio (Yasuaki Kurata), Mitsuko’s uncle. Though sent to take out one of Jingwu’s most powerful fighters, Fumio has a sense that his General’s intentions are wrong. He decides to challenge Chen Zhen and defeats him, but spares him death. In doing so, he teaches Chen Zhen what he will need to defeat the monster who would destroy his master’s school. The battle begins in a somewhat comical fashion with Fumio needing time to get settled. Those who have seen enough of these films will recognize that old man in need of stretching ploy that usually ends with the other fighter’s defeat. Later there is a moment in the fight when the wind is whipping up so much sand that Fumio finds it difficult to see. To even things up, the two fighters continue their battle blindfolded. It was awesome to see the fighters relying on all of the other senses to fight now that they could not see. I found this battle even more entertaining than the final battle of the film.
Though a remake of an old favorite, Fist of Legend is a movie that stands alone as a new classic, an homage toward a great actor and martial artist that makes an impression all its own. I recommend checking out the Dragon Dynasty DVD version complete with interviews of actors and the director, imparting even more knowledge of the martial arts movie making world. Fist of Legend was a great movie and these extras just added to the experience.