Sunday, December 04, 2005

Fist of Legend (1994)

Reviewed by - Mark Pollard

Premise: Remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury has Jet Li as Chen Zhen, a martial artist and patriot who returns to Shanghai after learning that his master has been killed. While struggling against discrimination, Chen discovers the truth behind his master's death and helps fight against Japanese out to destroy the school.

Review: Without a doubt, Fist of Legend is Jet Li's finest film and arguably one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. Ironic and all the more impressive considering that the style of combat and demeanor he adopts for this film are not his specialty.

In the early 1930's, Shanghai is under occupation by various foreign powers including Japan who is using this foothold to prepare for an invasion of the mainland. One of the opposition leaders to Japan's influence in China is Fok Yuen Gaap, a kung fu master and founder of the Jin Wu school. A local Japanese General by the name of Fujita (Billy Chow) has had the teacher poisoned before a match with the leader of a competing Japanese school which results in his death.

As the film begins, Fok Yuen Gaap's leading student hears of his master's death and rushes back to Shanghai from Japan where he has been studying. Chen Zhen (Jet Li) arrives to find the school's reputation in tatters. Unable to believe that his master could have lost a match, Chen challenges the Japanese master who fought Yuen Gaap and beats him easily. This confirms his suspicion and after performing a crude autopsy discovers that Yuen Gaap had been poisoned. With the destruction of China's martial arts reputation and the impending invasion in mind, General Fujita kills the Japanese schoolmaster in order to frame Chen for murder but his trial is thrown out after Mitsuko (Nakayama Shinobu), his Japanese girlfriend shows up to claim he was with her at the time of death. Freed of these charges Chen now has to face discrimination against Mitsuko by his own brothers at the school which leads to a confrontation with Yuen Gaap's successor, Ting On. Chen beats Ting On in a fight and goes to live in the country with Mitsuko. Their solitude is broken after General Fugita sends Matsuko's uncle (Yasuaki Kurata) to kill Chen. Chen is beaten by Fumio but the samurai has great respect for Chen and spares his life.

Meanwhile, the Jin Wu school has been formally challenged by General Fujita. Ting On manages a painful recovery from the disgrace of losing to Chen and visits him knowing this may be his last chance to see his old friend. Matsuko returns to Japan and Chen accompanies his friend to the challenge. Ting On is no match for the brutal Japanese officer's karate skills and Chen steps in to fight which leads to the general's death. To appease tensions between Japan and China, Chen agrees to accept responsibility for the General's death, but his friends may have other plans.

To begin with, this story which ties together the pre-World War II tensions between China and Japan as well as the changing face of martial arts in the modern world has become the foundation for so many kung fu movies. Its difficult to convey just how important was Lo Wei's creation of Chen Zhen (AKA Chen Jun) as portrayed by Bruce Lee to the Hong Kong film industry. But few if any films ever came close enough to the original or even dared to try for fear of failing to live up to Lee's performance. Donnie Yen may have opened up the possibly for another direct feature film adaptation after his successful Fist of Fury television series premiered on Hong Kong television. Shortly after the filming of that series came Fist of Legend that brought together the creative mastery of Jet Li in Bruce Lee's role, several Yuen brothers including Yuen Wo Ping doing choreography, and Gordon Chan whose eclectic skills as a writer and director helped bring about such memorable films as Fight Back to School (1991) and King of Beggars (1992).

Fist of Legend is a powerhouse film that gets just about everything right when it comes to creating a modern martial arts film. The filmmakers carefully steered away from the one-sided depictions of racial intolerance by Japanese with a refreshing relationship between Jet Li and a Japanese woman played by the lovely Nakayama Shinobu. In a memorable scene where Chen pauses during a tense fight with his old friend at the Jin Wu school, he looks at purposefully at Matsuko just before he decides to go on the offensive. This seems to underline the fact that Chen is fighting for more than just Chinese independence, but also for equality and tolerance in general, something Bruce Lee's Chen would never had been so sensitive to.

The Yuen brothers obviously decided early on not to replicate Lee's moves and it was a good idea. Jet Li is a student of northern wushu which is soft, rather than southern boxing which is where Bruce came from with his former Wing Chun training. As Li was portraying a student of "hard" kung fu, his approach is much more intense and brutal in its execution than ever seen before. He would go on to replicate this style in Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and to a lesser degree in The One (2001). Yuen Wo Ping smartly allowed various elements of Li's own moves to be incorporated, thus creating a visually stunning repertoire of moves which Li unleashes upon his foes from agile kicks to rapid punches. The choreography is some of the best ever conceived of by the Yuen brothers. Every move and every camera shot is dynamic and creative without being too fantastic. You rarely if ever see the same move or angle and lots of little touches such as slaps to the face add that bit of zest to each battle.

The costumes, sets, and acting performances are all top notch. Having Yasuaki Kurata portray a sort of mentor and foe to Jet Li was a masterstroke of casting. Kurata has been in dozens of Japanese vs. Chinese martial arts films and many of them quite good, although he was usually cast as the bad guy. This is perhaps his finest performance in terms of acting and likely his last great martial arts role. Chin Siu Ho who once gave Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh a run for their money in The Tai Chi Master (1993) deserves special mention for his stellar performance as Ting On, the new master of Jin Wu school. Again, the filmmakers expanded on the original story by including a rivalry between Ting On and Chen, one that nearly destroys him. In fact, he steals Jet Li's dramatic thunder by being the most distraught protagonist. On the flip side, Jet repeats his stoic image he perfected in Once Upon a Time in China (1991). Unfortunately, he isn't able to capture any of the raw intensity that Bruce Lee was so capable of. This may be another reason why other characters such as Ting On are given more time in the spotlight.

Another complaint I have is how Jet Li's character seems to simply saunter into the final showdown with General Fujita by tagging along with Ting On. Despite Fujita's attempts to have Chen dealt with earlier on, there isn't any real emotion invested in Jet Li's battle with Fujita. The impression I get is that this Chen Zhen spent all his frustration and anger after his first encounter with the Japanese karate school. But, that's a small gripe next to the incredible physical performance Li gives. For sheer kickass entertainment, you cannot beat Fist of Legend. By any standard, this is a classic of martial arts cinema and if you haven't seen it yet, I pity you.


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Jet Li (born April 26, 1963) is a Chinese martial artist, actor, Wushu champion, and international film star. After three years of intensive training, Li won his first national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team. After retiring at age 17, he went on to win great acclaim in China as an actor making his debut with the film Shaolin Temple (1982). sportsbook, He went on to star in many critically acclaimed martial arts epic films most notably the Once Upon a Time in China series where he portrayed folk hero Wong Fei Hung. His first role in a Hollywood movie was as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), but his first Hollywood film leading role was in Romeo Must Die (2000). He has gone on to star in many Hollywood action films mostly recently starring in the action film War (2007).

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