Fantastic Review: Legend of the Fist

By  · Published on September 29th, 2010

After avenging his slain teacher, kung-fu master Chen Zhen finds himself a marked man. He enlists in the army as a means of escape and ends up in Europe during WWI; serving as part of a suicide squad assigned to deliver ammunition to the front line. When one of his friends dies in combat, Chen Zhen decides to assume his identity and return to his homeland; falling steadily to foreign influence which is ultimately subverting its culture and history.

When the tyrannical Japanese government releases a list of detractors that it intends to silence – a death list – Chen Zhen can no longer idle quietly in his comfortable assumed life. He adorns a disguise and sets out to save the patriots of his beloved country before they become the discards of revolution.

Legend of the Fist is currently trading blows with I Saw the Devil for the title of my favorite film of this year’s fest. It is fast, glossy, and unstoppably entertaining. It is a classical martial films infused with an unexpected superhero flair. Much like Ip Man, and possibly more so, Legend of the Fist draws much of its strength from brutal, highly-kinetic fight sequences. The addition of the Kato mask and the 1920’s set pieces generously peppered the film with high genre concept that ultimately sets it apart from the other Yen films dealing with this universe.

Donnie Yen, this year’s festival gadfly, continues his current spate of films in which he portrays ostensibly the same character. Chen Zhen in many ways is the myth based upon the historical figure that is Ip Man. Though the origins of the legend are oft debated, the character of Chen Zhen did not appear until Bruce Lee’s 1972 film Fist of Fury. Bearing in mind that Bruce Lee was himself a student of Ip Man, the correlation between the characters and their stories becomes more cohesive. All that to say, Donnie Yen has found comfortable purchase as the put-upon catalyst for Chinese nationalism and social upheaval.

The performances are solid, the story is intriguing, and it is beautifully shot. But honestly the real reason to see Legend of the Fist is Donnie Yen opening up a highly-disciplined can of whoop ass on his foes. It was impossible not to cheer as Donnie sent baddie after baddie spinning off the mortal coil with extreme aptitude. The opening sequence alone justifies the price of admission. The one thing I had never conceived of witnessing on the screen was Donnie Yen applying his Ip Man fighting style, with a liberal sprinkling of parkour, to a turn-of-the-century theater of war. The result was something jaw-dropping and incredibly fun. I especially love when Yen breaks out what will go down in history as the greatest Bruce Lee impression ever filmed; a nod to Fist of Fury, of which this film is a sequel. He so elegantly captures not only the frenzied yelps and nunchuking prowess of Lee, but Yen actually drops his body into the jeet kune do style and occupies every measurable physicality of Lee. It got me to thinking about Yen’s legacy and how he might actually be our generation’s Bruce Lee; his prolific releases and discipline among the similarities.

I honestly believe this is the film that Ip Man 2 wanted to be. Semantics and hair splitting aside, Yen really has created a singular universe in which one character is examined from several different perspectives and alternate time lines. Where Ip Man 2 takes a rather silly approach of telling a story that isn’t even its own, a sad rehashing of the plot of Rocky IV, Legend of the Fist expounds on that universe and adds a wonderful new addition to the mythology. It isn’t quite as dramatically moving as Ip Man, but offers similar emotional ties between the story and the fight sequences which lends an altruistic gravity to the final confrontation.

Legend of the Fist is a must see for this festival, and a spectacular martial arts masterpiece.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.