Jet Li was a Hong Kong action star for nearly a decade before Fist Of Legend, and he had two kung-fu classics on his résumé: Once Upon A Time In China and Swordsman II. But Fist Of Legend made Li an icon, positioning him as the true successor to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Fist Of Legend—a remake of Lee's Fist Of Fury—stars Li as a student who returns home after his master is murdered, and launches a campaign to thwart the Japanese occupying Shanghai. The film was made in the '90s and is set in the '30s, but feels like the '70s, thanks to its bright look, tightly shot action sequences, and frequent bone-crunching—not to mention the none-too-subtle plea for cultural tolerance.
Fist Of Legend was also a feather in the cap for fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, who'd been in the business since the '70s, working with the likes of Chan and Sammo Hung, and went on from Fist Of Legend to work with the Wachowski brothers, Ang Lee, and Quentin Tarantino. Yuen and Li's collaboration really is the movie. As drama, Fist Of Legend is fairly straightforward good-guy/bad-guy stuff, in spite of the historical context and the attempts to give the Chinese and Japanese alike a finer moral shading. The film transcends its broad outline in the fight sequences, which fuse the Western and musical genres in the best kung-fu cinema tradition. Roughly every 10 minutes, Fist Of Legend introduces another showdown in another dusty courtyard between evenly matched opponents, and as mapped out by Yuen and shot by director Gordon Chan, the battles are kinetic and witty, converting all the characters' conversations about "honor" and "strength" into acrobatic life lessons.
It all culminates in an extended mano-a-mano that blends Yuen's minimal wire-work with Li's compact, aggressive fighting style. Without Li's ability to move fast and shuffle his feet like a prize-fighter, Fist Of Legend's body-slamming, mega-punching grand finale might look cartoonish and over-the-top. But Li sells it, with a pugilist's grace.
Key features: A typically informative commentary track by Bey Logan, and a second disc of interviews and appreciations.