In this magnificent reworking of Bruce Lee’s FIST OF FURY, Jet Li plays the revenge-seeking fictional student of real-life Chin Woo Athletic Association founder Huo Yuan-jia. Arriving at the end of Hong Kong’s 1990s-era kung fu cycle, FIST OF LEGEND represents the best the era had to offer in terms of kung fu excellence next to Jackie Chan’s DRUNKEN MASTER 2. With masterfully grounded fighting performances from talented co-stars Chin Siu-ho, Billy Chow and the great Yasuaki Kurata, the film delivers intense and fast-paced action all choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping and the Yuen Clan with an exceptionally fierce physical performance from Li while still in his prime.
Despite its premise, FIST OF LEGEND is not an official remake of FIST OF FURY as the rights to Golden Harvest’s 1972 film had not been acquired by Eastern Productions. This film is the last one produced by Jet Li through Eastern Productions in which Li is the star. Writer-director Gordon Chan, who had previously enjoyed big success directing several action-oriented Stephen Chow films including FIGHT BACK TO SCHOOL and KING OF BEGGARS, used the historical premise of Huo Yuan-jia’s death and the growing Japanese militarism in pre-World War II China as the backdrop to this film in much the same way that writer-director Lo Wei and screenwriter Ni Kuang did in FIST OF FURY. Credit goes to Chan for putting the film together and convincing Li to get on board.
Although the name is taken from one of Huo Yuan-jia’s real-life students, the main character, Chen Zhen (Li), is modeled after a nationalistic creation by Ni Kuang that was transcended by the intense screen charisma and fighting prowess of Bruce Lee. With no knowledge of the real Chen Zhen to base his performance off of, it is amazing that Li would even attempt such a role given that he had already established his own distinct screen persona in films such as ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and THE TAI-CHI MASTER. Nobody could walk in Bruce Lee’s shoes, not even Jet Li. Thankfully, Li chose not to emulate the late great star as so many lesser genre actors had and instead gave his own unique spin on the character while paying a very subtle homage to Bruce Lee.
Gordon Chan largely follows the main plot of FIST OF FURY while making a number of minor changes that update the politics of the story and flesh out the characters and conflicts a bit more. Chan’s version begins slightly earlier in time with Chen first hearing of his master’s death while studying in Japan. This occurs right after he schools a number of Imperialist martial arts students with a standout action sequence that quickly separates itself from Li’s previous performances in its directness and intensity. Li may not be howling like Bruce Lee or wielding nunchaku but he does capture the spirit of Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch and the philosophy that supported it.
What is missing from Li’s portrayal of Chen Zhen is the intensity that Ni Kuang’s script brought to the 1972 version. There may never be another kung fu movie that stirs the Chinese public the way that FIST OF FURY did. Its direct assault on the false image of Chinese people as “sick men of Asia,” coupled with Bruce Lee’s uniquely ferocious performance floored local audiences at the time of its release and still inspires people around the world to this day. Culturally speaking, there is nothing in 1994 that could have matched this and for all the talent that Jet Li has, he is a different man with a different approach to screen fighting and acting. Likewise, Gordon Chan intentionally tried to downplay the anti-Japanese rhetoric so common in martial arts films of the 1970s. Understanding this, I still felt the post-fight, dramatic ending was too weak given the intensity of Li’s physical performance which was evident right from the start.
According to Bey Logan in his 2008 commentary to the film, the opening fight scene was inspired by a sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s RED BEARD as performed by Toshiro Mifune. It’s clear that Gordon Chan was determined to distance the action in his film from some of Yuen Woo-ping’s previous exaggerated wirework in films like IRON MONKEY while not becoming too closely tied to Bruce Lee’s style either. Following this sequence, the film finds a happy medium where Li is still able to use his northern wushu training but also evoke the direct effectiveness and close-range fighting strengths of traditional southern fist forms. This is further balanced out with Li’s infrequent use of Western boxing techniques and grappling locks. FIST OF LEGEND definitely provides Jet Li with his most dynamic and varied physical performance in any film and on this count has yet to be topped, although he did revisit similar forms to a lesser degree in THE ONE and KISS OF THE DRAGON.
Yasuaki Kurata, one of the most dynamic and talented screen fighters in martial arts cinema history enjoys his last great performance in this film as a Japanese martial arts master who mentors Chen Zhen. It’s a remix of his outstanding role in LEGEND OF A FIGHTER and it also visually taps into his memorable clash with Gordon Liu in HEROES OF THE EAST. Kurata’s character did not exist in Lo Wei’s film. Gordon Chan uses him to effectively draw a distinction between the passing militarism of Imperial Japan and the timeless moral character of the truly devoted martial artist. Although quite a few years older, Kurata provides Li with one of his finest onscreen match-ups, in part because of what the underlying message of the fight is about. It’s essentially a training exercise for Li’s character. Chan uses the scene to suggest that the spirit of martial arts is more important that nationalism or revenge. It’s a more substantive message, albeit less dramatically stated than the nationalism within Lo Wei’s FIST OF FURY as evidenced by the smashing of the “no Chinese allowed” sign.
The fighting in FIST OF LEGEND is notable for the dynamic use of small integrated sets, breakaway props and power powder. Yuen Woo-ping is well known for pioneering wirework use in the kung fu movie genre but he also mastered the use of other tricks as well that greatly enhanced the style and perceived effectiveness of kung fu moves on screen. Breakaway props have been around for years and were used in Hollywood back when bar-fighting in Westerns was popular. At its simplest level all it involves is sawing the legs of a table or railing so that when a stuntman hits the object it safely breaks apart. Over the years this technique led to the creation of movie props that were designed to be easily destroyed when connecting with the human body from chairs to beer bottles. Chan’s production design team takes this to new levels in FIST OF LEGEND with breakaway beams, boulders, windows, rails. In the film’s climax where Li faces off against superkicker Billy Chow, the room they fight in as well as the exterior has been rigged for destruction. It’s quite obvious where the Wachowskis got their inspiration for the vivid structural destruction wrought in THE MATRIX when looking at what Yuen first achieved in FIST OF LEGEND. Yuen crafted a more matured fight incorporating elaborate set destruction, again with Jet Li, in FEARLESS.
Two aspects of Yuen’s action choreography that have not aged as well include his over-use of power powder and undercranking, which is the act of speeding up the action by slowing down the frame capture rate. Power powder was a gimmick mostly used in the early 1990s as a way to visually enhance the power of strikes. White talcum powder, or something similar, would be liberally sprinkled on actors or objects so that when a strike is made it creates a dramatic white cloud. It’s the Hong Kong equivalent of arterial blood sprays found in Japanese chambara movies, except that it never quite looks as good. A good reason is that the powder ends up covering clothing and objects which creates continuity problems and unnecessary distractions. This, of course, occurs in FIST OF LEGEND, as does rampant undercranking which sadly diminishes otherwise outstanding fighting form on the part of Li, Chow, Kurata and co-star Chin Siu-ho who previously worked with Li and Yuen Woo-ping in THE TAI-CHI MASTER.
Chin’s role is a reworking of the one played by James Tien in FIST OF FURY. The character was previously little more than a wallflower and this time is given more dramatic and fighting relevance. As successor to Huo Yuan-jia’s martial arts club and as the master’s son, Huo Ting-an (Chin) is faced with the greatest challenge of standing up to rivals and living up to his father’s legacy. He’s off to a poor start due to his involvement with a prostitute and opium. Although it’s greatly understated, it is these vices that weaken him and cause friction between the more popular Chen Zhen. A now discarded print of FIST OF LEGEND includes an extra three minutes depicting the opium use by Ting-an. For dramatic reasons it is unfortunate that this scene has been left out of all but an out-of-print Ritek DVD release but it’s not surprising as it understandably causes the real Huo family to lose face. Nevertheless, it’s a great role for the talented Chin Siu-ho and allows him to show off his dramatic and screen fighting chops.
It’s worth briefly mentioning a sub-plot in the film where Ting-an comes into conflict with Chen Zhen. In spite of his vices, Ting-an represents the traditional, old way of teaching and using kung fu and Chen represents a more modern approach to Chinese martial arts, something that Bruce Lee was very active in endorsing in his films and in his life. This plot reveals that Gordon Chan really understood the genre and how to display martial arts culture even though he was not a martial artist himself, nor had ever made a kung fu movie before. This conflict, although kept in check by the larger struggle with Billy Chow and his students, added a layer of depth to the interactions between Chen and his club mates that did not exist in Bruce Lee’s film.
Another interesting change in this update to FIST OF FURY is the role of Chen Zhen’s girlfriend, originally played by Nora Miao. She is reworked in FIST OF LEGEND into a Japanese woman as played by the attractive Shinobu Nakayama, a non-fighting newcomer who was brought in by Yasuaki Kurata. This was yet another opportunity for Chan to update the tired old Japanese vs. Chinese convention of so many past kung fu movies beginning with Jimmy Wang Yu’s THE CHINESE BOXER in 1970. It provides an excellent dramatic angle where Chen’s friends, all victims of Japanese racism are forced to examine their own prejudges against others. This aspect of the film could have been handled with even more sophistication but for a genre movie that is chiefly about kung fu, it’s not bad at all.
Production designer Horace Ma, who had previously worked with Chan on FIGHT BACK TO SCHOOL puts together very appealing sets and costumes with a complimentary color palette. Colors played an important role in FIST OF FURY when one thinks of Bruce Lee’s distinctive white uniform and the red umbrella he first appears with and they are just as important here. Considerable effort was put forth to reproduce 1930s-era Shanghai, as well as bits of Japan. In an era when period art direction was generally in decline following the demise of Shaw Brothers’ film production division and the rise of cheaply constructed TV sets, this film stands up to the best including ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and DRUNKEN MASTER 2.
Of special note, Joseph Koo, the composer for the score to FIST OF FURY serves as composer to this film as well. It’s an adequate score with lots of Asian-themed riffs and a little bit of unusual elements such as electric guitars. As a synth track, like most soundtracks to Hong Kong films during the 1980s and ’90s, it’s above average but is notably missing a rousing theme like Jet Li’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA films.
There is little dispute among fans or critics that FIST OF LEGEND is one of Jet Li’s best movies, whether we’re talking about purely kung fu/wushu or general action, of which there is a distinction. It has great performances from everyone, a great look, a solid story that actually builds on Lo Wei’s original script, and Jet Li ably does the impossible by stepping into a role made famous by Bruce Lee and makes it his own. Not even Jackie Chan can claim that after his early starring role in Lo Wei’s horrible NEW FIST OF FURY. Yuen Woo-ping has directed a lot of great kung fu movies up to this point but none of them apart from DRUNKEN MASTER quite measure up to the well-rounded quality of this collaboration with director Gordon Chan. It’s also true that Yuen’s best pure kung fu work since DRUNKEN MASTER has been with Jet Li, beginning with OUATIC in 1991 and ending with FEARLESS.
It’s a shame that the film didn’t fare well at the local box office nor gain enough international attention for more overseas distribution. FIST OF LEGEND came out at a time when Hong Kong’s film industry had become oversaturated with martial arts movies with dozens being released within a few short years. This boom had been preceded only a few years before by the classic kung fu era. Even as some of the decade’s best martial arts films were being released, Asian audiences were losing interest and Western audiences were only beginning to rediscover the genre.
Despite its ill-timed release and in spite of a few minor detracting factors, Gordon Chan’s FIST OF LEGEND is a brilliant kung fu masterpiece that gets right to the point by displaying grounded, yet stylized fight choreography that is in a class of its own. As a result, the film has had a big influence on world action cinema since and still represents the best the genre has to offer in the post-Shaw Brothers era.REVIEW: Fist of Legend (1994),
Chen Zhen • Eastern Productions • Features • Fist of Legend (1994) • Genre: Kung Fu • Huo Yuan-jia • Jet Li • Yasuaki Kurata • Yuen Clan • Yuen Woo-ping