"That Billy Blanks tape was the best
investment I ever made!"
Jet Li has just had his first big hit in the US with Romeo Must Die. But he was made a star in Hong Kong, where he has been churning out martial arts films for the last decade. To Hong Kong audiences, Li is known for playing various infallibly heroic characters, such as the folk heroes Wong Fei Hong and Fong Sai Yuk. In Fist of Legend, recently released on domestic tape and DVD by Dimension Home Video, Li takes on his most iconic character yet, playing a role originated by Bruce Lee. Fist of Legend is a loose remake of one of Lee's most popular Chinese films, Fist of Fury (known stateside as The Chinese Connection). Though the plot is largely the same, the details and themes differ greatly.
Chen Zhen (Li) is a Chinese student studying in the Japanese university in Kyoto. The year is 1937, when Japan's Imperial forces were occupying part of Northern China. Chen gets word that his adoptive father, master of the Jing Wu martial arts school in Shanghai, has been killed in one-on-one combat with the head of a Japanese Noguchi clan karate dojo. Chen leaves Japan (and his Japanese girlfriend Mitsuko, played by Shinobu Nakayama) behind, and makes his way back to Jing Wu to find out what happened to the master.
Jet prepares to retrieve his girlfreind's
Gameboy from the school bully.
Once in occupied Shanghai, Chen confronts the Noguchi clan at their dojo, and proceeds to lay the smackdown on the whole bunch of them, including the one who defeated the Jing Wu master. Chen realizes that in order for his master to lose to this bunch of pansies, something must have been crooked. In a grisly exhumation, Chen determines that the master was poisoned before the fight, but before he can do anything about it, he is arrested for the murder of the Noguchi clan's best fighter, who was actually killed by the evil Japanese General Fujita. Fujita (Billy Chow) wants Chen and the Jing Wu out of the way to pave the way for a Japanese takeover of all of China. How the closing of a martial arts school will ease an invasion isn't exactly clear, but we suppose evil military geniuses have their reasons.
Umm, Jet? The floor's that way.
Fist of Fury had a simple moral: The Japanese are bad. Set at a time when the Chinese were second class citizens in their own country, Bruce Lee's acts of defiance against the Japanese authorities were big crowd pleasers. Jet Li's version of the story takes a different tack on the material. The only evil Japanese character in the whole film is Fujita, and Chen Zhen is a victim of discrimination, not from the Japanese, but from the Chinese of Shanghai because he has a Japanese girlfriend.
Where Fist of Legend shines is (as one might expect) in the many martial arts sequences. Though Gordon Chow directed the movie, Yuen Woo Ping (Wing Chun, The Matrix) directed the martial arts sequences. Woo Ping is known for his heavy use of wire work, which in films like Tai Chi Master and Once Upon a Time in China II sent Jet Li sailing through the air in a fashion that began to impinge on Superman's schtick. Here Woo Ping keeps things a bit more realistic, using the wires to enhance the abilities of the performers. The final fight, where the diminutive Li fights the tall and powerful Chow, is probably the peak of Woo Ping's art. This fight ends with a rather clever homage to Bruce Lee's famous hand vs. sword fight from the original film, only Chen Zhen uses his belt against Fujita's sword. How Chen's pants stay up after he has removed his belt remains a mystery.
"Admit that my cuisine reigns supreme!"
There's something mesmerizing about the way Jet Li moves on film, even without the aid of invisible wire trickery. The sheer number of ways the man can contort his body can make you bow your head to the floor in shame -- especially if you're a couch potato like us. Li's talent is almost incomparable to that of most martial artists, in that his fighting style actually changes from film to film. When you see Jackie Chan fight, you know you're watching Jackie Chan (illustrating this point is the fact that his character's name is also Jackie in most of his later movies), and you know that he'll be mixing up the kung fu with the use of the household objects at hand. Li, on the other hand, plays different characters in his martial arts, if not so much the thespian arts. Let's face it: the guy is no paragon of dynamic range, but he'll do handsomely for the likes of Fist of Legend.
Viewers who thought Jet lacked chemistry with Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die will find little different in Fist of Legend. Despite the fact that they're supposed to be in love, and even move in together, Chen and Mitsuko only share a single uncomfortable hug. Otherwise, Li is his usual self: reserved, but subtly humorous and always a treat to watch in action.