EDITOR’S NOTE: I was supposed to review “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung” today, but Netflix decided to mix up my DVD queue and sent me the wrong disc. I’ll catch up with “Ten Tigers” next week. (Hopefully.)
Bruce Lee was an icon worthy of his status and an outstanding martial artist in his own right. He had a presence and a charisma and a level of skill most martial artists and actors could only dream of.
But what has become evident to me over the course of this series, and especially after watching Lee’s breakout film “Fist of Fury” remade as “Fist of Legend,” he really only had one note to play when it came to his films in that he was all but invincible. Yes, it was a note that is certainly entertaining to watch and it was a genre-defining note, but a singular note nonetheless.
Even Superman has Kryptonite to make us wonder how he’ll eventually win. But when Lee would strut into a room and then flick his nose with his thumb, any question about whether he would win went flying out the window. And that’s fine if that’s all you want out of a kung fu flick, but it robs the fights of intensity, character and nuance. Jet Li’s portrayal of Chen Zhen (the character Lee originated) in “Fist of Legend” is proof positive of this.
That’s not to say Li’s Chen doesn’t also wipe the floor with nearly everyone he goes up against. In the first fight at the Japanese dojo, he probably takes down as many guys in that one fight than Lee did in the entirety of “Fist of Fury.” But as the film goes on, and especially as Li’s Chen goes up against the dastardly General Fujita (Billy Chau, whose character is also credited as “Supreme Killer”), you begin to realize there’s the very real chance he might lose.
The fight between Chen and Fujita is especially great. The majority of the film featured fights that were immaculately filmed and filled with all sorts of phenomenal physical feats and energetic, elaborate choreography. This climactic battle, though, throws elaborate choreography out the window in favor of a more unrefined style of fight. Fujita isn’t a martial arts master, he’s simply a ruthless killing machine, and Chen quickly has to learn that it’s going to take more than just speed and style to win. It becomes a battle of raw force, and it feels so rare to see a hero who truly looks and feels vulnerable in this way.
That vulnerability goes a long way toward not just amping up the stakes (these fights actually mean something now instead of just being a means to watch Lee effortlessly win), but to establishing Chen’s character. Suddenly, he’s someone worth rooting for because now he’s got something to lose. This, of course, is amplified by the tenacity and fire burning within Jet Li’s performance. The man is far from the greatest actor, but he’s fully invested in bringing this version of the character to life.
“Fist of Legend” is also a much more fleshed-out film. The star-crossed lovers side story feels more poignant and weighty now that his girlfriend is Japanese (this film has Chen studying at a university in Kyoto before returning to avenge his master’s murder), which intersects nicely with the more pronounced political aspects of the film. It’s once again set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, but the sense of oppression and the politics of the time are much more pronounced. Also, Li’s Chen isn’t forced to fight a goofily coifed Russian.
Lee’s version was fine for what it was and certainly entertaining to watch, but there’s little question that this is the more complex, nuanced and exciting version to watch. Chen Zhen’s an interesting character, though, in that he sort of become a modern folk hero to the Chinese with multiple iterations of him presented throughout the years, most recently in Donnie Yen’s “Legend of the Fist.”
This has been an exciting and even eye-opening series to work through and I’m sad to be moving on after next week’s review of “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.” I will very likely return for another round in the future.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.