In the world of innocuous comparisons, Jet Li will always be Gene Kelly to Jackie Chan’s Fred Astaire. The latter used his grace and tireless technique to add uniquely comic flare and characterization to his martial arts moves. The former, equally adept and expert, took a far more physical and staunch approach. Together with the late great Bruce Lee, they have done more for the Hong Kong action film than a production company filled with Shaw Brothers. Yet thanks to our previous narrow minded focus on our own interpretation of the genre, few US fans got to see these icons in their prime. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company, via their definitive Dragon Dynasty imprint, has been hoping to change all that. With their 31st (!) release, we get Li proving why he is one of the greatest movie stars ever. In this fantastic film, his truly is the Fist of Legend.
While studying in Japan, Chen Zhen learns that the master of his kung fu school has died during a challenge. Vowing to help rebuild its failing reputation, he leaves behind his gal pal Mitsuko and returns to Shanghai. It’s the mid-‘30s and the entire country is currently under Japanese invasion. Upon arriving, Zhen finds his fellow students defeated and depressed. Even worse, the new headmaster, Hou Ting-An, is failing to fulfill his late father’s mandates. Zhen takes on and defeats the Japanese sponsored training temple, raising the ire of General Fujita. He frames the Zhen for murder. Luckily, Mitsuko steps in to save the day. Prejudice against such interracial match-ups lead our hero and his fiancé to live in a cabin in the wilderness. As Ting-An tries to escape his responsibilities via a local prostitute, it will be up to Zhen to save the face of his former master and his great school once and for all.
It goes without saying that Fist of Legend is some manner of masterpiece. It features Li in one of his most compelling and iconic roles (it’s an update of the famous Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection from 1972) and shows why director Gordon Chan is considered a modern Hong Kong king. Utilizing all the standard storyline manipulations, from loss of dignity to a last act fight to the death, Legend lives up to its mythic title by taking these elements and molding them into something electrifying and emotional. The entire experience is as spellbinding as it is brilliantly bad-ass. Li has always been a wonderful fighter, and in this film he shows off every skill in his capacity. There is even a clever bit where he uses Western boxing techniques to throw his mystified opponent off guard. It’s yet another testament to the skilled stuntwork of the equally celebrated action God Woo-ping Yuen. His repute needs no further finesse.
But there is more to this movie than kicks and counterattacks. The main theme running through Fist of Legend is the unflinching hatred between the invading Japanese and the victimized Chinese. The prejudice is so deep that when Li’s former female classmate Mitsuko shows up to offer her (false) testimony in Chen’s defense, she is rewarded with some unsettling, uncalled for bigotry. As one of the characters says later on in the film, everyone will accept the young headmaster’s whore mistress from the local brothel, but the woman who saved their true hero’s life gets relegated to an existence in exile. Not all the Japanese are evil, however. Fist does try to moderate the intolerance. During these scenes, Li’s subtler side shows through. Though he understands the anger and animosity, he chooses to see beyond the small-mindedness and social stigmas.
In fact, it’s hard to differentiate which is more powerful - the anti-Japanese sentiment (understandable considering the countries’ shared history) or the battles. Each grabs a hold of our attention and provides various levels of intrigue. Film historian Bey Logan, a fixture of these DVD presentations, states in the accompanying commentary that some of this kowtowing was clearly meant for Hong Kong audiences. Certain scenes got crowds up on their feet and cheering, especially toward the end where Li seems to singlehandedly push the invaders back to their tiny island nation with a single unselfish act. Logan also explains that the original Bruce Lee movie was so well loved that Li and Chan were concerned about adapting it. The more political approach soothed their understandable hesitance. As we watch this remarkable movie, we see that much of this narrative is layered in the art of populist myth making - both plotwise and for movie marketing. It certainly has a star capable of carrying such a stance.
As they do with almost all their releases, Dragon Dynasty delivers a content dense two disc package that should make purists proud while giving newcomers the context they need to simply enjoy. There are interviews with director Chan, kung fu “impresario” Chin Siu-ho, Japanese action hero Kurata Yasuaki (who plays the charismatic master of the competing school), and a sit down with American director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell regarding the film. Toss in some deleted scenes (always fun, considering the source), a screen fighting seminar at the Kuratra Action School, and a trailer gallery, and we have an excellent set of supplements that provide explanations as well as added entertainment value.
Yet even it pales in comparison to the rousing experience of seeing Fist of Legend for the first time. There is no greater joy for a film fan than learning the ‘when and where’ of how their favored hero earned their earmarked reputation. Here, Li is nothing short of human electricity, lighting up every scene he is in and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the powerful punches that force opponents across the room, to the sadder sequences where Chen mourns his fallen master, Fist of Legend overloads the screen with heart pounding - and breaking - radiance. It is perhaps one of the best martial arts movies ever - and just like the classic Hollywood hoofer he’s comparable to, Li does it all with athleticism, power, and an undeniable individual elegance. He truly is something superhuman.