I don’t think that most people realize the impact that Bruce Lee had. Oh sure, most people can identify him, and maybe even do a crappy imitation of his patented “ooooo” or quote a line of dialog. But in the Asian world, Bruce Lee is pretty much the man. His movies were a first for any Asian, making him a cult figure in the West who remained fiercely loyal to his cultural heritage and worked hard to integrate Asian thought and philosophy into his movies. So it should really come as no surprise that recent years have seen a number of remakes, homages, and even parodies.
Some of these are absolutely brilliant, such as Jet Li’s Fist of Legend, which is not only a fine homage to Lee, but also one of the finest martial arts films ever made. Others, such as Sammo Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon, are less so, homages with tons of heart but still almost painful to watch. Perhaps the most ambitious Lee homage was the 1995 TV series Fist of Fury, a Chinese production that took Lee’s classic film and expanded it into 30 episodes, creating whole new storylines and characters and fleshing out the story of China’s struggle against Japanese invaders.
Now, I say “perhaps” because all I have to go on is this, a 2 hour slice n’ dice distillation of the series courtesy of Tai Seng, and a pretty poor one at that. That became painfully clear as I watched the “Making of” featurette included on the DVD. Whole character arcs and backstories had been cut out, which explained why some characters just suddenly appeared in the movie with little or no explanation, and yet nobody else in the movie seemed to notice. The movie’s entire pacing feels rushed, as if the producers were trying to condense as much of the series as possible into 120 minutes, a futile attempt that becomes painfully obvious as the movie continues. Rather than adding depth to the movie, the result is a slow, confusing mess that drags nearly every single minute.
The plot’s essence is this: Due to internal strife, China has become increasingly divided. Using this to their advantage, Japan makes plans to invade China, hoping to control its vast natural resources. The martial arts schools have become increasingly divided, caring more about their individual styles than unity, and are unable to defend against Japan. One school, Jing Wu, hopes to lead all of the schools, creating a single, very powerful style to use against the invaders.
Donnie Yen plays Chen Zhen, Jing Wu’s finest pupil. When his master is poisoned in a Japanese plot to undermine the school, Chen promises vengeance. He systematically begins defeating Japanese martial artists, proving time and again that Chinese martial arts are superior. But complicating matters is Yumi, Chen’s love and also the daughter of Sachio Takeda, the man in charge of China’s invasion. An ambitious man, Takeda is not above treachery and assassination to achieve his goals, even at the expense of his own family. Furthermore, Chen has to deal with treachery from his own countrymen, as other Chinese flock to the Japanese, hoping to benefit as their conqueror’s lackeys.
What immediately drew my eye to this was Donnie Yen’s involvement, one of the few true martial artist/actors out there. Unlike so many who appear in martial arts movies, Yen is a true expert, having studied under the same wushu master as Jet Li. Although Yen has starred in some clunkers (e.g., Crystal Hunt), his involvement in Iron Monkey has forever cemented his place in my pantheon of kung-fu gods. Recently, Yen has made a name for himself as a choreographer, working on films such as Blade 2 and Highlander: Endgame.
Since Lee was Yen’s childhood idol, it’s no surprise that you find Yen playing Chen (Lee’s role in the original), as well as handling the action choreography. Unfortunately, the results (at least in these 120 minutes) are, well, silly. Yen’s always been a fan of under-cranking (shooting the action at a slower speed which results in sped-up moves when the film is played back at normal speed), but he goes nuts here. What you get is the visual equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks, enough to make someone with ADD plead for a little slow motion. When someone lands a blow, you never feel it like you do in great martial arts movies; combined with way too many cuts and incredibly tight framing, it feels like the editor accidentally left the film in fast forward, hoping to get through as much action as possible.
Making it hilarious (though unintentionally, I presume) is Yen’s copping of Lee’s trademark moves, gestures, and noises (and I say this knowing full well that Yen could paralyze me with his left nostril). At first, it’s worth it just to hear Yen doing his best Lee impersonation while hopping across the screen like a hyperactive kid on uppers, but then you just want some break in the action, one solidly-landed punch or graceful kick. What I’ve always liked about Fist of Legend was that Jet Li never tried to be Bruce Lee; rather than impersonating the man, he paid homage to the man’s spirit, to the spirit of the film while making the role his own. So, even though Fist of Legend was a remake, it had a heart and soul all it’s own.
Now, I could deal with insane action pieces and senseless editing if the story had been solid. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the ultra-truncated version leaves huge gaps in the story, gaps that I was barely able to fill by watching the DVD’s supplemental materials. Everything in the series dealing with Chen’s youth, especially his family, is gone. Anything dealing with the romantic development between him and Yumi is absent, as are the details behind the romantic triangle involving Hideaki Ishii, a Japanese warrior in charge of destroying the martial arts schools. Any drama left in the movie is on par with your cheaper soap operas, complete with overacting and melodramatic pauses. I found myself waiting for someone to make a shock announcement about their pregnancy and the identity of the child’s father.
The other thing that irked me was the film’s treatment of the Japanese. What I’ve always liked about Fist of Legend were the shades of grey the film employed when it came to both the Japanese and the Chinese. There were villains to be sure, but there were also great, noble characters. Fist of Fury is clearly a patriotic work, but the film’s treatment of the Japanese turns them, at best, into vapid girls (Yumi) and at worst, treacherous, bloodthirsty dogs (Takeda and Ishii). It’s all black and white, and you know whether someone is good or evil by the flag flying behind them.
All of which just goes to show that condensing 30 full episodes into 120 minutes just can’t work. Important details are going to be left out, be they plot points or character development. Any depth the series might have had is lost, replaced by senseless fight scenes bridging the gaps between extreme romantic melodrama, jingoism, and characters just popping in and out seemingly at will. I’m guessing that most of the series’ finest moments are on a Tai Seng cutting floor somewhere in the world.