In the very first scene of Fist of Legend, a group of Japanese karate students burst into a college engineering classroom. They’re mad because there’s one Chinese student in the class, and they think Japan should be for Japanese people only. Their idea, I guess, is that they’re going to find that one Chinese student and either beat him up or chase him out. But it doesn’t work out, since that one Chinese student is Jet Li, and Jet Li does not play. In the fight that ensues, Li beats the shit out of every last one of those Japanese thugs, breaking legs and smashing heads through desks.
My favorite moment in there: Li grabs one assailant by the jaw, wiggles it around a couple of times, and then lets it go. The guy presumably still has functional arms and legs; he could keep trying to fight Li if he really wanted. Instead, he staggers backward and stupidly points at his hanging-open mouth. He just cannot believe what this fucker just did to his mouth, and that disbelief pretty much short-circuits his brain. Later, we see his teacher popping his jaw back into its socket, and he spends the rest of the scene standing around, looking angry but chastened and rubbing his jaw. The whole thing with Li grabbing his jaw lasts maybe two seconds, but it’s one of my favorite moments in any martial arts movie.
If you’re going to remake a Bruce Lee movie, you need to nail the shit out of those little moments. Fist of Legend is a remake of Lee’s 1972 movie The Chinese Connection, the one where Lee avenges his teacher’s murder by walking into a Japanese karate dojo and fucking up every last son of a bitch in it. That’s an iconic movie, just as every movie in Lee’s tiny filmography is an iconic movie. And Jet Li was never going to match Lee’s intense, glowering charisma. In fact, he comes off as something of a passive figure during much of this movie, only fighting because it’s the only way to handle a situation that he can understand. He never shows malice or anger, and that’s pretty much all Lee showed in the original.
But in its own way, Fist of Legend is just as much a classic as The Chinese Connection, and that’s because of the fights. It’s one of the all-time great fight movies, probably the best thing that Li has ever done. In 1994, when Li and director Gordon Chan made this, the fights in Hong Kong martial arts movies were fantastical affairs, full of billowing robes and impossible feats of wire-assisted flight; think of the way people hovered in mid-air in The Heroic Trio. But in Fist of Legend, everything is fast and grounded and brutal. Li’s always been something of a charisma black hole, but he’s a star because of the way he moves, with a speed and precision and elegance that his peers just couldn’t match. When Li walks into the Japanese dojo, the way Lee did in The Chinese Connection, the fight against the mob doesn’t have the same dramatic back-and-forth quality it had in the first movie. He’s never backed into a corner and forced to pull out nunchucks. Instead, he breaks down an entire room full of tough guys without breaking a sweat or changing his facial expression. He destroys a room full of fighters with the sort of calm that some of us wish we could bring to changing a lightbulb.
Really, one of the strangest things about Fist of Legend is the idea that anyone wants to fight this guy at all. He’s practically a superhero, and you’d think that everyone on both sides would just want to stand back and watch him work. Instead, the Japanese are mad at him for beating up all their guys and for being Chinese, while the Chinese are mad at him for falling in love with a Japanese woman. This is one of those moments where it doesn’t exactly help to be a clueless Westerner when you’re watching these movies. Without being able to access the generations-deep nationalistic resentments, you just wonder why everyone, on both sides, isn’t just like, “Holy shit, look at Jet Li go.” And it doesn’t help that the dubbed-into-English version, the only one that’s up on Netflix, has a cast of voice actors who sound like absolute wieners.
But those themes of Chinese resentment against Japanese invaders aren’t exactly unique to Fist of Legend. The movie tells the same sort of story as just about every other Hong Kong martial-arts period piece. The first couple of times I saw it, I didn’t even put together the fact that Fist of Legend was a Chinese Connection remake. I just figured that both movies were riffing on the sort of story we’ve seen a million times. This one actually distinguishes itself by having a few Japanese characters who aren’t cartoon villains: The Japanese girlfriend seems more into Li than he is into her, but she’s willing to throw her whole life away to protect him from the kangaroo court run by her asshole countrymen. And her uncle, the karate teacher from that first scene, eventually tracks Li down for one of those great mutual-respect martial arts duels where both characters learn from each other and come out the other side as friends. When the uncle gets some dust in his eye during the fight, Li even offers to make things fair and blindfolds himself so that he won’t have an unearned upper hand. It’s the rare fight scene that actually mends fences even as it gives us two guys beautifully beating each other senseless.
But the best reason to watch Fist of Legend is probably its final fight scene, a long and varied throwdown that pits Li against a towering and indestructible Japanese general, played by Billy Chau. This is one of those perfect fight scenes, a visceral and kinetic battle that honestly couldn’t possibly be any better than it is. Li and Chau take turns ramming each other’s heads through windows. Chau stops a Li punch by headbutting it. Li does some serious Jason Bourne shit with his belt. It’s incredible. The great Yuen Woo-ping did the movie’s fight choreography, and his work in it is supposedly what got him the job in the first Matrix movie. Yuen would go on to put together great fights in great movies, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill, but that Fist of Legend climax is probably still his masterpiece. If there’s a better hand-to-hand fight in any English-language movie ever made, I haven’t seen it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Hot Fuzz | Assault on Precinct 13 | Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird |The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters |The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone| Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China |Sonatine |Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master