Director: Andrew Lau Starring: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue Screenplay: Gordon Chan Country: Hong Kong/China
For a long time Donnie Yen has been overshadowed by his more popular kung-fu brethren Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but given they're both too old it's now the chance for Yen to seize the limelight in terrific films like SPL, the Ip Man series and Flash Point and prove to everyone else what his fans already knew: the man kicks supreme amounts of arse. Unfortunately in Legend of the Fist there are a number of elements that get in the way of said arse-kicking.
We first meet Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) in the middle of devastated ruins in wartime France, and the cinematography and violence beckons comparisons to Saving Private Ryan (even though this is set in World War I). Cut to popular nightclub Casablanca in beautifully rendered 1920s Shanghai, and nightclub owner Master Liu Yutian (the always excellent Anthony Wong) is profiteering nicely thanks to the war. Kiki (the gorgeous Shu Qi) sings at his club but is also a spy working for the Japanese. The main Japanese bad guy in the film is Colonel Chikaraishi Takeshi (Ryu Kohata), who has something of a grudge against Chen Zhen. He runs a school of Japanese martial artists and is about as despicable a bad guy as you would want in this sort of thing. In the middle of this is Zhen himself who, along with his war buddies, has established a group to promote Chinese resistance against the Japanese, occasionally assisted by a detective who always gets on the wrong side of his Caucasian superior. Zhen happens across a costume which he uses to become "The Masked Warrior" which viewers will of course recognise as Bruce Lee's iconic Kato costume from The Green Hornet. Clad in this tight-fitting action hero garb, Zhen beats the everloving shit out of Japanese insurgents wherever he can. When a 'death list' is published - basically, a list of anti-Japanese citizens who are to be assassinated - and his friends start getting killed, Zhen confronts Tsuyoshi in his dojo for some payback.
Legend of the Fist's main problem is that of identity. It starts off with a mix of authentic old footage and recreated footage and then goes into Saving Private Ryan mode, but in the blink of an eye, as Chen Zhen sets out to defeat some gunners, it suddenly lurches into Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon territory, with some unbelievable acrobatics that look impressive but are, considering the setting and the tone that the film has built up so far with, preposterous. However, Chen Zhen gets handy with some knives The Raid-style, so it's all pretty awesome to watch. As intros go it's a barnstormer, but unfortunately reflects the film's struggle over its tone. Legend of the Fist seems unsure what it wants to be: a dramatic recreation of historical events, a magnificently staged soap opera, an over-the-top superhero-esque film or a tight, exciting homage to the Chen Zhen character as played by Bruce Lee (in Fist of Fury) and Jet Li (in Fist of Legend). It actually tries to be all of these, and as a result doesn't really succeed at any of them. The plot is extremely convoluted, with (metaphorical, not physical) backstabbings galore and a plethora of superfluous supporting characters, and it's sometimes hard to keep track of who is on what side.
This overloaded script has the unfortunate effect of sidelining Donnie Yen, who is by far the most interesting and charismatic person on screen, and we really don't get an idea of what makes his character click other than him having a deep-seeded patriotism. I assume this film is meant to follow on from Fist of Fury, and there's even a flashback to what I have to assume is a scene directly from Bruce Lee's film (it's been too long since I've seen Fist of Fury so I can't recall). Or is it a follow-on from Yen's own Fist of Fury TV series? Well, given Yen goes for the prerequisite Lee screams and gestures I'd say it's meant to follow on from the film. Anyway, it's really a moot point as character motives are either only hinted at or pretty much ignored. Some characters, particularly Wong and Qi, are especially short-changed. With some judicious paring down of the script, removal of some characters and a focus on the characters that are supposed to matter, Legend of the Fist could have been streamlined into something approaching Fist of Legend's excellence. Instead it feels like what should have been a ten-hour long HBO series crammed into something under two hours, a kung-fu action film with pretensions of being a Hollywood historical epic. I assume the initial cut of this film was something like three or four hours, because you get the sense that Legend of the Fist was mercilessly cut down to a more audience-friendly version. Perhaps what the studio should have done was release a two-part version, much like John Woo's excellent Battle of Red Cliff, which gave it the time to delve into its story and characters whilst presenting an epic scenario full of stylish battles.
Fortunately the action scenes - directed by Yen - don't disappoint, even though Chen Zhen is presented as something of a supernatural force of nature. The problem is that whilst the final fight is technically excellent, it's less thrilling than, say, the finale of Yen's Ip Man because in that film we were more invested in the outcome. Here, after an hour-and-a-half of muddled politics and murky characters, we don't really care as much as we should (and the flashbacks during the fight are unnecessary and unwelcome - we get it, China's good, Japan's bad, he's pissed off at the injustice of it all - duh!). Jet Li's Fist of Legend showed how it should be done: a straightforward plot that gradually ups the viewer's hatred of the barbaric Japanese actions against the Chinese, resulting in a cathartic release of joy with that final brilliant dojo-set fight scene. Legend of the Fist is so overbearingly jingoistic it puts Independence Day to shame. And then...it ends. Just like that. Hm.
Which is a shame, because buried underneath all the overdone crap is a decent story wanting to get out. It's genuinely thrilling when Yen dons the Kato outfit and whups some bad guys. Why not more of that? And the other interesting subplots, like the death list, are glossed over, and end up raising more questions than they answer, at least to uninformed viewers like myself - what is the origin of the death list, why are particular people being targeted and why doesn't more hell break loose as a result? At least Donnie Yen is a solid lead, and on a technical level the film is superior in almost every way even though the editing is a little inconsistent.
So what's the bottom line? Pros: good action, beautiful cinematography, and the presence of Yen, Wong and Qi are always welcome. Cons: muddled script, inconsistent tone, ham-fisted commentary. I'd probably chalk this one up for Donnie Yen completists only.
Legend of the Fist is an expensive and handsome production, and it looks frickin' beautiful, that's for sure. From the dirty, greyed out horrors of the trenches to the golden lights of the Shanghai streets and the warmth of the nightclub, the film's colours are eye-popping but never oversaturated. The action is clean and clear and the typical over-reliance on CGI isn't as noticeable as it usually is in these sorts of productions.
The sole track, a Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, emphasises all the kicks, grunts, booms and action-ey sounds like a pro, providing a strong soundtrack in support of the sublime visuals. Dialogue comes through nice and clear and is supported by a good set of English subtitles (which can be removed).
The Madman disc comes with an OK assortment of extras. The featurette "Making of Legend of the Fist" is a fifteen-minute look at the extravagant production, including interviews with principal cast and crew members. It's a perfectly decent behind-the-scenes look, but nothing remarkable. A more thorough look at the staging of the fight scenes would have been nice.
The nearly fifty-minute Behind the Scenes is a bunch of footage taken during the shoot with no commentary or interviews, and strictly for the most dedicated of fans.
There are about 12 minutes of Deleted Scenes, far less than I was expecting considering the choppy nature of the final product. They mostly involve Shu Qi and Anthony Wong's characters.
The rest of the extras are made up of a Teaser and Trailer for Legend of the Fist, and some trailers of other Madman releases.
Frustratingly muddled and inconsistent, Legend of the Fist is half a good action romp and half an overblown historical mess. Action fans will probably be left wanting more, and reminisce fondly over the more streamlined Bruce Lee and Jet Li takes on the Chen Zhen character. Viewers who were after a more detailed historical look at this period will no doubt be disappointed by the thin characterisation and lack of depth. Legend of the Fist looks great but tries to be everything to everyone and will probably wind up satisfying only the least demanding of viewers.
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