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Chen Zhen, a Chinese engineering student in Kyoto, who braves the insults and abuse of his Japanse fellow students for his local love Mitsuko Yamada, daughter of the director, returns in 1937 to his native Shangai, under Japanse protectorate -in fact military occupation- after reading about the death of his kung-fu master Huo Yuan Jia in a fight against the Japanese champion Ryuichi Akutagawa. While overcoming suspicion and ambition within the kungfu school, Chen exhumes his master to prove Hou's defeat was the result of poisoning. Both nationalities make the case a test of honor, so Chinese and Japanese pride are at stake when it culminates in Chen's final epic duel against the ruthless, undefeated Japanese general Fujita. Written by
I had commented earlier this year that Chinese martial arts sensation Jet Li's most recent action film, "Danny the Dog" or "Unleashed" as it has been advertised here in the states, was the best film that I'd ever seen him act in. The fights in that movie, with choreography that was courtesy of Yuen Wo Ping, were brutal and spectacular and captured a side of Li that had not yet been seen by the audiences of American martial arts cinema.
After seeing "Danny the Dog," I've become convinced that there's no question of Li's talents as an actor and performer, as he had starred in some 40 successful action movies in China before making his American debut as the main villain in "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998). One of Li's most famous roles from his time in China was that of Chen Zhen in 1994's "Fist of Legend."
"Fist of Legend," a remake of the classic Bruce Lee movie "The Chinese Connection" (1972), is set in China in 1937 when the Japanese were occupying Shanghai and racial tensions between Chinese citizens and the Japan military were high. (I'm not all that familiar with Chinese history so I'm not going to pretend I know a whole lot about how these two industrious cultures clashed with one another in the streets.)
Li stars as Chen Zhen, a bright martial arts student who is away in Japan studying engineering. In the opening action sequence at a Japanese school, we already get a sense of the animosity the two rivaling cultures share, as Chen takes on an entire squad of Japanese police officers in the classroom as they attempt to arrest him. But of course, even more seriously, he has no idea of the ills that await him once he returns to his homeland when he receives word that his beloved martial arts master was killed in a challenge.
I was amazed at the degree of restraint exercised in "Fist of Legend." Obviously very few martial arts movies have action that is realistic, but this film has the kind of sequences that I really like, which is the nearly complete absence of wirework or "Matrix-fu" or "wire-fu." Instead, like my favorite American Jet Li productions, the aforementioned "Danny the Dog" or "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), much of the action is down-to-earth and ground-based.
Back in China, Chen finds that life in his homeland is not the same as when he left it. He finds himself at odds with his best friend, who is now the academy's leading martial arts master but the students prefer Chen Zhen to him. Even worse, Chen had fallen in love with a Japanese woman while out of country, and faces the skepticism of his fellow countrymen and women as a result - his allegiance to his fellow Chinamen is now being tested.
But many of these personal woes will have to be pushed to the side, as Chen Zhen must square off against the Japanese general, who Chen suspects had his master poisoned and who also looks to shut the school down and misplace its students. Of course, Chen's not going away without a fight, and it becomes a showdown between warring cultures, the outcome of which we already know from history.
As stated earlier, "Fist of Legend" showcases Li in one of the most famous roles of his career as an action film star. He's channeling the mighty Bruce Lee himself in his on-screen actions - particularly evident in the film's over-the-top finale where Li battles the towering Japanese general in a no-holds-barred fight to the death.
In the case of many imported movies from China, it's easy to get over the horrendous dubbing, frantic pacing, and any changes that may have made to the film in order to accommodate the interest of American viewers. "Fist of Legend" was directed by Gordon Chan and choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, who shows us what Li can really do in the absence of today's highly stylized wirework.
Now we know why Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee are icons on the kung-fu movie circuit: they've all made movies and are idolized by a devoted fanbase that encompasses millions of loyal followers. Li is currently the screen's most electric and sensational martial arts star; his work in this film and this year's "Danny the Dog" show us why that's true. I'm just waiting for his acceptance speech - that may be just a pipe dream, but hey, anything is possible in today's times.
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