I think I made a mistake when I bought this film. It was the first Jet Li film I ever watched, and I think it may very well have spoiled all of his other films for me. Fist of Legend is, without a doubt, one of the best kung fu films I’ve ever seen, for various reasons. One, and perhaps most importantly, the martial arts action is incredibly fast, precise, and dazzling (courtesy of Yuen Woo-Ping). Two, it’s actually a film, with a cohesive plot and credible acting, rather than mere lines of dialog meant to fill up the spaces between fights.
Technically, this is a remake of Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection. Li plays the title character, Chen Zhen, a Chinese student studying in Japan. Upon dispatching a group of bullies with incredible ease, he learns his master has been killed in a match with a Japanese master, Akutagawa. Returning home, he quickly takes care of Akutagawa and discovers that his master was actually killed by poison. Framed for the murder of Akutagawa, he is saved only when his Japanese girlfriend testifies on his behalf. Unable to stay in his school due to his girlfriend being Japanese, and unwilling to leave the woman behind, he is forced to fight his best friend and leave the school. Eventually, he and his best friend must reconcile their differences and face the Japanese together.
Alright, so it sounds cliched, but it works so well in this film. The acting is well-done, and Li gives a pretty good performance. He manages to convey the emotions of a man torn between his school and his master’s honor, and the woman he must take care of. Although the film has a pretty serious, dramatic tone (which is also a bit of switch from most kung fu films, which border on slapstick many times), Li is up to it. Unlike Jackie Chan, who lovably hams it up for the camera in most of his films, Li has an edge to him and his screen presence is undeniable.
“But let’s get to the most important part,” you say. As I said before, the martial arts in this film are among some of the best I’ve ever seen. Li is incredibly quick and fast. Unlike Jackie Chan, who is at his best when mixing in slapstick humor between the punches, Li is precise and serious. The opening fight scene with the nationalists only whets your appetite for what is to follow. Especially fun to watch is the fight between Chen Zhen and his girlfriend’s uncle, who has come to test Zhen’s abilities, and the long final fight sequence never gets tiresome. The pacing of the film is excellent too, so that when a fight occurs, it feels natural within the flow of the film. And if you’re not a fan of the wire tricks that are prevalent in Li’s other films, don’t worry; they’re kept to a minimum here.
The only real complaint I have is the music, which sounds like it belongs on the 6 o’clock news rather than a kung fu flick, but that’s just me. Shoot, forget I wrote that. If you consider yourself a martial arts fan in the slightest, you’ll need to see this film. But like I said, it’s spoiled every other Li film I’ve seen up to date. Granted, the guy’s got a pretty sizable catalog, but this one leaves a pretty big shadow for his other films to stand in. I only hope that they release this on DVD soon, because I may very well wear out my VHS copy.
If you’re curious as to how Fist of Legend holds up to The Chinese Connection, I’ll have to be honest. I like Fist of Legend a lot better. Granted, The Chinese Connection has Bruce Lee’s legendary presence. However, I think Fist of Legend just works better as a movie, and I find it’s one of the few martial arts movies I can watch repeatedly without it getting tiresome and predictable.
Just a little trivia: Yuen Woo-Ping (Iron Monkey) also choreographed all of the martial arts in The Matrix, After watching Fist of Legend, the Wachowski brothers — who wrote and directed The Matrix, and who are also big kung fu/Hong Kong cinema fans themselves — decided that they needed to bring him onboard.