The recipe for a kung fu movie is simple: a protagonist who is superhuman in endurance and strength, an antagonist who commands limitless, expendable minions, and a minimal helping of intrigue to provide the appropriate pretext for button-mashing carnage.
In Legend of the Fist, our hero is Chen Zhen, a nationalistic World War I veteran with formidable kung fu chops. His enemy is Colonel Chikaraishi, the head of the Japanese forces stationed in 1920s Shanghai and a kung fu master of equal if more brutal ability. The modest and relatively transparent intrigue centers around the Casablanca nightclub, a hotbed of cheesy gamblers, sultry jazz singers, and generally impolitic international characters. In their encounters in the club, on the street, and in the back rooms of Shanghai’s military compounds, Zhen and the colonel engage in a silly and somewhat illogical game of political and martial maneuvering, as the one tries to subdue the Chinese people’s noble spirit and the other tries to rally it to resistance.
This, however, is really just frills and garnish — there’s a reason it’s called Legend of the Fist and not Legend of the Japanese Takeover, or even Legend of the Spy. The real meat of the movie is the ass-kicking that Zhen distributes to the members of the Chikaraishi’s retinue, climaxing, of course, in a showdown between the hero, the entirety of the colonel’s dojo, and finally, the colonel himself. In these scenes, director Andrew Lau and action director Donnie Yen, who also plays Chen Zhen, mix up a stew of kung fu hallmarks from old to new. The action is made up of the creative props, comic touches, and sheer force that turned Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Bruce Lee into icons, but it’s also enlivened by a light use of computer effects and wire work.
The combination of old and new is very much self-conscious. Legend of the Fist is based on a 1990s television series called Fist of Fury, which in turn was based on Bruce Lee’s 1972 film Fist of Fury. Zhen has had a long and successful life as a kung fu legend; that movie also spawned a sequel and remake starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, respectively. Going up against such masters of the genre is bound to invite unflattering expectations, and the new film doesn’t always hold up. The repeated closeups of Yen’s fist making indelible impressions on yet another minion’s face begin to lose their savor after the first couple of brawls, and the tedious subplots and confusing cast of characters drag on the film’s momentum between fights. To make matters worse, the screenwriters saw fit to introduce a gratuitous and flavorless dose of the superhero genre. Chen Zhen is no longer just a kung fu badass; he’s a masked warrior who unmans Japanese death squads in a black leather costume.
Slips like these make the movie’s final showdown anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Still, Legend of the Fist is in the same family of Hong Kong kung fu as its hallowed predecessors in Li, Chan, and Lee, and its kicks, punches, and nunchuk hits land with the same happy cadence. There may be a few misguided adjustments, but the underlying formula is still the same.