Before I became an action junkie I was an action fan. I especially have always found myself drawn to martial arts films. But there was a name I despised in my early days of action cinema critique: Jet Li. Jet Li is well known for his wirework sequences and most of his later projects depended entirely on wires. Li’s Fearless is a well respected film in the martial arts scene but I found it to be not practical enough. Even today I don’t think most of Li’s later work is worth the time of day with the exception of Hero, which stands on its own merits as an artistic masterpiece.
My dislike for Jet Li has been quelled recently, as well as my distaste for wirework. Once Upon a Time in China is full of gravity and physics-defying stunts but those scenes are inventive and fun, especially the final ladder sequence. Tai-Chi Master, despite every wire being present in the frame (which is distracting) still provides some excellent displays of martial arts mastery. But in a filmography crammed with non-practical action films, it’s nice to come across Fist of Legend.
Fist of Legend is an homage to Bruce Lee films, which could send us on a tangent about why I hate Bruce Lee movies and how overrated I think the majority of his work is…but let’s stay focused. Li plays Chen Zhen, a Chinese student living in Japan during the late 1930s. With tensions between the two nations high, he faces a lot of adversity. Thankfully, he knows martial arts and is willing to break the bones of anyone who gets in his face.
Eventually he learns that his master in China has been killed by a Japanese martial artist, prompting Chen to go home and seek revenge.
Before discussing the fight sequences, let’s discuss some of the drama. While I didn’t think a lot of it was interesting or engaging, I liked the film’s portrayal of the hate the Japanese and Chinese held for each other. Chen is in love with a Japanese girl, which leads to some obvious mistrust of his intentions and judgment among his fellow Chinese. Fist of Legend handles the relationship between Chen and Mitsuko quite well and doesn’t devolve into racism or the kind of typical derision you see in a lot of Eastern period pieces. While the romance wasn’t the crux of the movie and didn’t play a major part, it was commendable nonetheless.
What is truly commendable, though, are the fight sequences. From the first battle between Chen and a hoard of Japanese students to the final fight where we see Li use a belt to face a man with a katana, this is a martial art fan’s wet dream. Li proves he can be just as efficient at practical martial arts as he is with the impractical, showcasing a variety of styles in his battles with the Japanese occupiers. There is not a bad fight sequence to be found in this film, all of them edited pretty well and many lasting five-ish minutes, providing a lot of adrenaline and excitement. If I were to list my favorite martial arts films insofar as battles are concerned, Fist of Legend would be in the top five, maybe even the top three. The choreography and stunt work are that damn good.
I don’t have too much to say or criticize. Fist of Legend doesn’t provide a lot of thought-provoking material but does provide what you want: dozens of minutes of hard-hitting martial arts action. This is Jet Li’s best showcase of skill and perhaps his best film overall. I implore you to find a way to watch Fist of Legend and give it a shot: it’s worth your time.