Fist of Legend hardly destroyed the box-office in Hong Kong upon its release in 1994, but it has since become a genre classic on the international scene. Jet Li features after ruling the early nineties 'wire-fu' scene with his performances in Once Upon a Time in China , Fong Sai-Yuk and Swordsman 2. The exasperatingly inconsistent Gordon Chan was at the helm for Fist of Legend. The man is responsible for this and other classics like Fight Back to School / King of Beggars (Stephen Chow) and Beast Cops (Anthony Wong), but also turkeys such as The Medallion (Jackie Chan) and Bodyguard from Beijing (Jet Li). More importantly, Yuen Woo Ping was the action choreographer. The vast majority of Jet's finest action moments have come when working with Yuen Woo Ping and Fist of Legend is no exception. The co-star is taken by Hong Kong nearly-man Chin Sui-Ho, who also starred alongside Jet in Tai Chi Master (Twin Warriors). Evil boss goes to the excellent Billy Chau and there is a most welcome cameo from Japanese legend Yasuaki Karata.
The basic skeleton plot for Fist of Legend is taken from Bruce Lee's 1972 smash hit Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection). Jet reprises the legendary role of patriot Chen Zhen who battles against Japanese oppression. After realising that his master Fok Yen Gaap has been defeated in 'dubious circumstances', Chen leads a one man battle against the Japanese to show that they are not the sick men of Asia!
However, it is a bit lazy to describe this as a direct remake of Fist of Fury. There are several key distinctions in terms of character development and underlying philosophy. Bruce's character suddenly psychotically snaps under Japanese oppression, whereas Jet plays a calm and respectful Chen Zhen, only engaging in combat under the greatest duress. The most significant distinction lies in Jet's embrace of Japanese culture and wisdom. He studies in Japan , he has a Japanese girlfriend and he is only able to defeat the ultimate bad guy (Billy Chau) by learning from a Japanese master (Kurata).
It is possible that Kurata is the key to understanding how Fist of Legend has taken a different path to Fist of Fury. Kurata starred in several outstanding martial arts movies in the late seventies / early eighties. Two that spring to mind are Heroes of the East (Shaolin Challenges Ninja) and Legend of a Fighter. Heroes of the East feature Gordon Liu as a Chinese who marries a Japanese lady. After a misunderstanding, Kurata and several other masters from Japan come over to test his martial arts. Similar to Jet Li and Kurata's relationship in Fist of Legend, the combat is underlined by a sense of mutual respect. Rather than trying to defeat a different style, the true martial artist learns from the new challenge.
In Kurata's second work, Legend of a Fighter, he teaches martial arts to a Chinese student, Leung Kar Yan, knowing that they will eventually have to fight each other. This fatalistic element is also present in Fist of Legend. It is arguably a common device in the entire genre, beautifully portrayed in the original Zatoichi movie (1962). However, this is a far cry from the clear cut revenge thread in Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, there is no learning, no sharing of ideas and no respect.
It is also interesting to note that the action choreographer in Legend of a Fighter and Fist of Legend is none other than Yuen Woo Ping. He has always been a choreographer more interested in exploring the aesthetics of combat over simple blood-letting. The dynamic link between him and Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China series allows Jet to bring the dignified manner of Wong Fei Hung along with his eye-popping fighting skills.
Everything about this film is planned and executed with a brush of brilliance. The story moves along at an engaging pace. As the net circles around Chen Zhen, so does the intensity and the spectacular action scenes. This is all supported by a quality set and support cast. The characters feel real, rather than just plot devices or cardboard cut-outs. Credit must be given to Chin Siu-Ho for his excellent portrayal of the fellow pupil both in awe and envy of Chen Zhen's ability. Every part of the film feels as though it has been thought through by Gordan Chan and this surely stands as his most composed work as director.
Fist of Legend's action in many ways has set a bar for martial arts action along with Drunken Master 2 for the mid-nineties. Since then, little has got close in terms of intensity or artistry. The tricks normally used to cover up deficiencies in martial artists, such as editing, wires and powdered kicks are used by Yuen Woo Ping to further enhance the action. This is the promised land for kung fu cinema. It is the acceptable exaggeration of the already breath-taking action sequence. There will always be the familiar grumble about Jet being doubled due to his dodgy back but this has little impact on this feast of action.
If there is one thing to grumble about, it is the disc from Buena Vista. Once again the lunatics are running the asylum. They have presented a good remastered non-anamorphic widescreen print (1.85:1) and provided a DD5.1 dubbed English track. There is nothing wrong with this, but:
I am really not exaggerating here. These fucking clowns have set a new standard in cultural ignorance and plain muppetry.
** Spoiler - In the original release Chen Zhen avoids death at the end and decides to travel around the country to help other Chinese regions against Japanese colonialism. In the Buena Vista dub Chen decides to return to Japan to be with his lady! This is after previously declaring that he will never return to Japan until the colonial oppression ends. It is only a small 'tweak' but it completely destroys the whole point of the movie. Rather than dedicating his life to healing China he selfishly decides to go back and be with his girl and just forget about the political strife in his homeland - what a hero!
Furthermore, there is no excuse for not providing a Cantonese language version. It already exists, it does not require any work, apart from adding some English subtitles. Unfortunately, this has happened to all of the Jet Li films released by Buena Vista and is not a problem specific to Fist of Legend.
Finally, they have provided a new score that is terrible. The real crime is that the original score was actually superb. It had a heroic triumphalist feel that makes Chen Zhen into a hero. Similar to the score for Wong Fei Hung it was an instantly recognisable and memorable theme that worked perfectly with the subject matter. This is gone in the Buena Vista version, replaced with bland and insipid background music. Once again, this is a new low in incompetence and ignorance.
Fist of Legend is one of the all time classics in the world of martial arts movie making. I would argue that this is possibly the magnum opus for both Jet Li and Yuen Woo Ping. I cannot fault the movie for its fresh and original retelling of a classic story. This is more than a cash cow remake, it is a new interpretation that remains true to the basic premise but also forges out a new path in both action and philosophy. The only crime is the sickening behaviour of Buena Vista, this is one of the times where it is definitely worth tracking down the Hong Kong disc. The Hong Kong disc will only have a subtitled option, but if you are the sort of person that needs dubbing to follow a movie, then you are probably the sort of clown that Buena Vista are hoping to cash-in on. UK fans would be advised to alternatively track down the VHS which may still be floating around on auction sites. (plus there are some Malaysian / Thai VCDs that you can import)