This year marks the 70th year of Bruce Lee's birth, arguably the best martial artist the cinematic world has ever seen, with his short filmography still continuing to wow audiences young and old. With tribute screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year, and at the Tokyo International Film Festival later this month, director Andrew Lau, writer Gordan Chan and leading kung-fu icon of the moment Donnie Yen pay their collective tribute with Legend of the Fist, taking one of the most memorable of Bruce Lee's characters Chen Zhen and imagining a follow up story.
But wait, wasn't the final shot in Fist of Fury quite definitive? But as movie rules are concerned, nothing's canon if you don't see it, so a slew of gunshots count for nothing, passing it off as one of many rumours to discount his death, when in actual fact Chen Zhen (now with Yen picking up the mantle) is still alive and kicking, and sent packing to the WWI front in France to fight alongside his Chinese labourer compatriots against the Axis forces. It's an unsatisfactory explanation I know, but one of the rare blips in what I thought was a riveting story concocted that alas was let down by a cliched ending that was too abrupt to be satisfying, leaving doors open for another film if it does happen.
Other than that, Legend of the Fist continues how Bruce Lee films were steeped in Chinese nationalism, only here it went with trumpets blaring with any given opportunity. Chen Zhen assumes a dead comrade's identity to return to Shanghai keeping jolly well under the Japanese's radar, where now the city in the early 20s gets carved up into settlements, with a microscopic representation of the internal chaos existing within the nightclub of influential Shanghainese businessman Liu Yiutian (Anthony Wong), with whom Chen Zhen befriends, for an ulterior motive of course, since he's now with the resistance, and the Casablanca club providing a hotbed of information as they plot and counterplot moves against the Japanese's brewing aggression.
Of late there's been a wave of such nationalistic movies that Donnie Yen tend to get involved in, such as Bodyguards and Assassins, and his more recent and successful Ip Man films, where Chinese people gather around a representative hero of their time to defeat foreign aggressors, where even in Ip Man 1, we see and expect the same mano-a-mano against a Japanese general who shows off his fair share of kung-fu knowhow. Like how many caricatures would be crafted in many more films that deal with that difficult period in Chinese history. While Yen had portrayed historical characters in those films, this one he continues with a fictional one made famous by a historical martial artist in Lee.
As a film steeped in paying homage to Lee, there are times where you feel the characters and action get shackled from freedom of expression, but this is not always a bad thing. I had followed Donnie Yen's career pretty early when he was still doing television serials for Hong Kong's ATV, where he played Chen Zhen in a storyline that had to mimic Fist of Fury, but expanded to include a romance with a Japanese woman. Like some television dramas that gets new lease of life on the big screen, it helped that Yen has experience in portraying the role other than a few others like Jet Li in another feature film that was a remake, but this one had the guts to continue where the film / series left off with a new spin.
While aspects of the Chen Zhen character were toned down probably because the character has to continue staying under the radar, gone are the high shrieks when he fights in the beginning (purists, please don't worry, you'll hear that toward the end), and got replaced by plenty of what I thought was MMA executed in brilliantly brutal fashion, starting with the prologue action sequence which had Chen Zhen being that one man soldier, followed by yet another nod in Bruce Lee's direction when dressed in a deliberate Kato costume. I'd say if not for his age, I'd give my vote to Yen if he were to be casted as Kato in the upcoming Green Hornet film in lieu of Jay Chou.
More Lee homages were to come, with the necessity to go shirtless in highlighting the chiseled physique that has its fair share of punishment, and what would be defining of Lee in Fist of Fury with the use of the nunchaks, although with all due respect to Yen, Lee is quite indomitable in this area, and the filmmakers here can only up the ante by throwing in a lot more goons to dispatch of in the same dojo from the earlier film. Yen took the action choreographer reins, and skillfully designed some spectacular fight sequences for action junkies to go wow over, balancing the homage aspects as well as coming up with some really violent, finishing moves to rid opponents. Watch this in a cinema with a proper sound system decked out will heighten that sense surround of being within the all round action.
The story's pretty much plain sailing with little surprises thrown in other than to present shifting loyalties in a tumultuous time, where Anthony Wong lends gravitas, Chinese actor Huang Bo providing comic relief as a corrupt policeman, and Shu Qi lending her vocals yet again as a club hostess already seen in films like Blood Brothers. While the story wouldn't be as iconic as Fist of Fury's, the fight action sequences lived up to its billing, and celebrated manifold the legend of Bruce Lee's instead.