June 2015's Kung Fu Movies: #18/20
Fist of Legend was my favorite movie of Kung Fu Movies month of those I hadn't seen before. It's a remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, but takes that already surprisingly complex story and replaces the strident anger with several new layers of conflict and thoughtfulness. It also has the best one-on-one fights I can recall from any movie of the genre.
Jet Li's version of Chen Zhen is studying in Japan and already accustomed to demonstrating his superior martial arts on those who dare to discriminate against the Chinese. When he receives news from Shanghai that his beloved master has died after fighting a Japanese, he returns home and uncovers a murder conspiracy. Unlike Zhen's unhinged vengeance spree in Lee's original version, the Zhen in Gordon Chan's remake has a trickier path to navigate: he's framed for murder and then exiled from his school, in part due to jealousy over his superior kung fu, but also because of racism aimed at his Japanese girlfriend.
Jet Li gives the best of his performances that I've seen, finally freed from playing a sanctified historical figures and allowed to express some emotion, doubt and confusion. However my favorite performance in Fist of Legend comes from Yasuaki Kurata, as a respectful sensei who is ordered to fight Zhen despite admiring the young man. Their battle is magnificent and exemplary of the quality of this thoughtful remake: both characters are forced into battle by tradition and responsibility, and they engage with a dignity utterly lacking in those who forced them to face off. It's a rare fight scene in which the core tension is not wanting either party to lose, and the characters feel exactly the same. In addition, the choreography of this scene is marvelous and varied, as the combatants attempt different styles to adjust to each other's strengths and weaknesses, including a portion in which they each agree to blindfold themselves. Wonderful stuff. the final showdown between Li and the Japanese general behind the murder plot is likewise fierce and exciting.
From start to finish Fist of Legend distinguishes itself as the cream of the crop of its genre in terms of both fight scenes and narrative, only indulging occasionally in wild leaps (a 3-minute autopsy?) to keep the story moving. the only negative to Fist of Legend is its music, which jarringly injects the lamest of royalty-free stock-quality trumpet fanfares during the movie's two best fight scenes. (There is some controversy over changes made to Dimension's release of the film, including a different score, but I watched the Dragon Dynasty release with what I understand is the original score.)