The 1990s was a great decade for martial arts movie fans. It saw the release of classics such as Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, and Rumble in the Bronx. I was in my teenage years at the time and discovering the genre’s best movies past and present, was like heaven. Bruce Lee was iconic. Jackie Chan brought a comedic element to the genre. But for pure spectacle and eye-watering speed, my favorite was always Jet Li. With Fist of Legend being one of his very best.
A remake of Bruce Lee’s 1972 hit Fist of Fury, the film has the same DNA running through it, yet manages to feel entirely its own thing. Multiple fight scenes feature dozens of people at once, while there is still room for some great one on one encounters. No wires. No CGI. Just extremely skilled actors doing what they do best. Kicking ass.
That’s not to say the plot is non-existent. The film is set at the beginning of the Second World War, as the Imperial Japanese Army is stationed in Shanghai, China. It portrays the Japanese and the Chinese as equally good and bad, with heroes and morally corrupt antagonists on both sides.
Plenty of films of this ilk feature threadbare plots that are simply a vehicle to drive the fight scenes forward. A cooling down period in between the action so we can catch our breaths before the next fight. Conversely, Fist of Legend’s plot is surprisingly engaging. One that touches on themes of racism, class, and cultural divides. With a good helping of romance thrown in. It was never going to win any Oscars, but it’s refreshing to have a plot that features a genuine emotional arc. All this makes the experience feel more like a cohesive film rather than a collection of random displays of athleticism.
With that being said, the reason I watch films such as this is for the action. And it’s as good as ever here. Pre Hollywood Jet Li fight scenes are nothing short of epic. Some of his best are featured in the Once Upon a Time in China movies, along with The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk and its sequel. While those movies rely more on props, the action in Fist of Legend feels more visceral and pure.
There is so much bone snapping and joint popping on display, interspersed between the beautifully choreographed flurries of punches and kicks. Jet Li’s final showdown against the Japanese general is exhaustingly good. When watching such poetry in motion I can’t help but have a goofy grin plastered across my face. It’s said that Fist of Legend inspired the Wachowskis to hire the legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for the fight scenes in The Matrix. An inspired decision.
Most of the success of these scenes is down to Jet Li himself. I could talk for days about his individual brilliance and skill as a genuine martial arts master, but something that’s underrated is his acting ability. He is able to convey a range of emotions without saying a word. Whether facing off against a foe, pleading with a loved one, or coming to terms with the death of someone close. It all seems to come from his eyes.
It was due to this acting ability, along with his natural athletic talent, that he was able to take his career to the next level. And this was one of the films where people really started to see his potential as the next big star from the Far East. Widely considered one of Li’s best films, Fist of Legend was released during the downturn period of the Hong Kong film industry and its box office gross was considered a disappointment. This didn’t hold Jet Li back from going on to star in Lethal Weapon 4 only four years later, then taking his first Hollywood leading role in Romeo Must Die two years after that.
Martial arts movies have always been a bit of a niche category, tending to attract a more masculine audience. That has changed slightly in recent years with the almost over-the-top and staggeringly beautiful set designs and costumes featured in more modern movies. But if you have any interest in checking out some of the older classics, or even just Jet Li’s earlier filmography, Fist of Legend is a great place to start.