Even though “Underworld” was the first ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder‘ subject that I posted, “Gamera: The Giant Monster” was the first movie I watched with this review series in mind. I wasn’t sure if I was going to commit to this idea though and my plan at the time lacked any consistent order, so I would watch “Children of the Corn” and follow that viewing experience up with a “Resident Evil” sequel. Now I try to focus on one film series at a time, because that’s just…less stupid…I bring this up because I watched the original “Fists of Fury” around the same time I saw “Gamera: The Giant Monster“, yet I kept pushing this marathon back while I explored other franchises. Why is this? Well, sometimes my brain has to take a dump, but can’t always reach the toilet in time so it has an accident…Even though I’d actually seen three of the sequels, it didn’t dawn on me that “Fists of Fury” was even a franchise until after I had watched it…Yes, the guy who pretends to specialize in franchises… wasnotawarethatamoviehehadalreadyseenhadahandfulofsequelsthathehadalsoalreadyseenandthereforeisafranchise…
*Ahem*…By the time I realized my mistake, I had already committed myself to other franchises, so this had to wait until my schedule cleared up a little bit. Now that I’m finally making this my current project, I’ve found myself more fascinated with the behind-the-scenes story of how these sequels came to be than with the movies themselves. At the time, China couldn’t care less about trivial things such as copyright laws, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear a John Williams or a Henry Mancini theme appear in a kung fu flick. In 1971, Bruce Lee became a huge star in Hong Kong thanks to the success of “The Big Boss“…which would be mistakenly titled “Fists of Fury” in the west…and this lead to the production of…”Fists of Fury“, the one that isn’t “The Big Boss“…His untimely death in 1973 left a void throughout the entire industry, as EVERYONE was now desperate to manufacture their own Bruce Lee and this would be taken to ridiculous extremes. Not only would these actors often try to style their hair and outfits after Lee, they would adopt stage names such as Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, etc.! As a tactic to put them over with audiences, the studios would have the Bruce Lee clones (not to be confused with “The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)”…actually, never-mind, they were all in that too.) star in films that claimed to be sequels to Bruce Lee’s hits (“Game of Death 2“) or have suspiciously similar titles (“Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger“). This trend was known as ‘Brucesploitation’ and I doubt there was ever a more shameless era of cinema, as the plots would often reference Bruce’s real-life death. Eventually these flicks would adopt their own kung fu stances and battle for the title of ‘sequel’ for his biggest domestic hit, “Fists of Fury“, because no one gave enough of a shit about copyright. But why “Fists of Fury“? Why is this the one Bruce Lee classic that keeps being revisited all these years later?
FISTS OF FURY (1972)
(Written and Directed by Lo Wei)
(Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao and Chikara Hashimoto)
“Fists of Fury“…and I mean the actual “Fists of Fury” and not the “Fists of Fury” that is actually “The Big Boss“… is alternatively known as “The Chinese Connection” in the west, as “The French Connection” was hugely popular at the time and it made sense for the distributors to want to lure in audiences using the likeliness of a film that did not even share the same genre as “Fists of Fury“…I am disappointed that “The French Connection 2” did not get released in the East as “Cars of Fury“, although I now like to pretend that all of these films are part of a shared universe. This distribution madness would not stop here either, as “The Way of the Dragon” was packaged as a sequel to “Enter the Dragon“, even though it came out first…Anyway, “Fists of Fury”- the REAL, ORIGINAL “Fists of Fury”- is about Chen (Bruce Lee), who seeks to avenge his Master’s death at the hands of insidious Japanese occupiers. While “Enter the Dragon” remains Bruce Lee’s most popular film from an International perspective, “Fists of Fury” was a cultural phenomenon in Hong Kong. Modern audiences might cough uncomfortably at some of its content, as the movie is a little racist in its depiction of the Japanese, something that allegedly concerned Lee himself during production. To appreciate “Fists of Fury“, you just have to accept and understand that it was a product of its time. The atrocities committed against the Chinese during World War 2 were still fresh on their minds in the 1970’s and “Fists of Fury” tapped into that rage in a way that no other film had ever done before. The ‘Sick Man of Asia’ slogan and the ‘No Dogs or Chinese Allowed’ sign were based in reality and “Fists of Fury” addressed these degradations without restraint…but it also gave its audience their avenger in the form of Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen, so it was incredibly satisfying seeing him rebel against their oppressors.
I understand the context and even though I’m not Chinese myself, the film did an excellent job at making you want to see Bruce Lee unleash hell upon the baddies…and then it forces you to experience the consequences with him. Lee portrays Chen as someone who is about to have a psychotic breakdown and his ‘murder face’ is terrifying. The music is often bad-ass and inspiring, but it also can be unnerving, adding even more tension to Lee’s overwhelming intensity. The choreography might seem a little crude by todays standards, but every strike is backed up with sheer ’emotional content’ (see what I did there?). When Lee punches or kicks someone, I believe he wants to kill them. Lee does make some funny facial expressions here and there, but his acting is really good and when he isn’t making me wet my pants with fear, he shows some comedic timing and charm. Even though there would be many lookalikes with varying degrees of skill and talent, none would ever come close to reaching his sheer magnetism. I doubt “Fists of Fury” would’ve been able to stand out without Lee’s presence. This isn’t to say that the rest of the movie is weak, but everything about it seems built around its star. The cinematography is suitably bleak and the script is unflinchingly cynical, but they mold themselves around Lee’s performance, so it’s hard to talk about anything else. “Fists of Fury” is all about raw, visceral emotion, which is reflected in both the storytelling and choreography. The subject matter is harsh and manifests itself in ugly ways, but it’s arguably what the Chinese people needed at the time and its influences can still be seen today.
NEW FISTS OF FURY (1976)
(Directed by Lo Wei)
(Written by Lei Pan and Lo Wei)
(Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao and Sing Chen)
“New Fists of Fury” is the ‘official’ sequel to “Fists of Fury” and while this might seem like an unnecessary title…trust me, the layout of this franchise will make less sense once I’ve explained it to you…The combined forces of “The Big Boss” and “Fists of Fury” made Lo Wei into the biggest Chinese director of his time…until he and Bruce Lee parted ways under less than friendly terms, in which it quickly became apparent who the real talent was. By 1976, he was considered washed up and desperately needed to latch onto a new star, so took a risk on some nobody who would eventually be called ‘Jackie Chan’. I might have and will continue to throw shade at Lo Wei, but I do believe he had an eye for talent and not just because of his past partnership with Bruce Lee. “New Fists of Fury” ended up being a failure and everyone who discusses this will correctly point out that the infamously controlling director did not know how to properly utilize Jackie’s talents. Lo Wei attempted to package him as the next Bruce Lee, but who has Bruce’s physique? Or his presence? For all of his awesomeness, Jackie simply could not fit those shoes and audiences wouldn’t forgive this. Lo Wei must’ve recognized some of Jackie’s strengths, as he is playing the same kind of comedic rogue that would later make him famous. But Jackie is tragically restrained here and he’s never given enough to do, as the dark tone restricts him and the material he has to work with isn’t very good. Yet to his credit, Lo Wei didn’t immediately give up on pushing him into stardom, as they did a handful of (bad) movies together, even though these efforts only contributed to Jackie’s reputation as ‘box office poison’ during that time period. “New Fists of Fury” makes me a little sad, as you can see a good movie trying to come together, only for all of its pieces to draw knives and stab each-other in the backs.
The plot thinks it’s better than it really is, but I will concede that it still could’ve worked because I thought the characters were decently written. They don’t have fleshed out backstories or character arcs, but they have distinct personalities and some nuance. I was at least a little intrigued by their power plays, scheming and conflicts, but there is just one…little…GIGANTIC problem…Jackie Chan’s protagonist has little-to-nothing to do with the actual story and only occasionally interacts with those who are important to the story. In fact, Nora Miao’s character seems to be the true protagonist, as the plot revolves around her fleeing to Taiwan and joining a resistance…but our supposed ‘hero’ doesn’t really have a place in this until the LAST 25 MINUTES. Miao wasn’t a martial arts expert either, so we never really get to see her have ‘vengeance’ of any kind, despite the fact that the film keeps setting her up for a fight…only for someone else to step in…Her arc is very unsatisfying for this reason and there are a handful of subplots that go absolutely nowhere. Jackie’s Mom is Japanese, which would normally create a compelling conflict when he realizes he is what he hates…right? Nope, he never discovers his true identity. Characters will simply vanish from the narrative and I’ve heard that there was originally a much longer version of the film that probably would’ve filled these gaps, but I don’t know if I’d want this to be any longer than it has to be. The fight scenes aren’t very good, even though you can tell that there is some serious talent involved here. Jackie Chan’s character doesn’t know kung fu UNTIL THE LAST 20 MINUTES OF THE MOVIE, which by the way, is a REALLY F@CKING STUPID WAY OF PUTTING OVER A NEW STAR. His climactic showdown with the Japanese Antagonist is OK, but only because the fighting that proceeded their final battle was so lackluster. In the end, the choreography was upstaged by some absurd visuals, such as Jackie’s glowing ‘Fists of Fury’ and the villain using his teeth to throw knives. I laughed, but I think I was supposed to be inspired or feel tension…You hear beats of the classic “Fists of Fury” music in the opening scenes, but the rest of the score is generic and forgettable. The tone is all over the place, with an ending that miserably fails to recapture the tragic-yet-inspirational conclusion of the first “Fists of Fury“. “New Fists of Fury” is more mediocre than bad, but it was definitely an atrocious way of presenting Jackie Chan to the world. He seems almost irrelevant in his own movie, continuously gets his ass kicked, has no martial arts skills until around the 3rd act and then…the ending…The finish will leave you cold in the worst possible way imaginable…I’m still suffering from it! Jackie Chan would have to wait a few more years before attaining stardom, when Lo Wei loaned him out to Golden Harvest, where he finally found complete creative freedom over his stunt work. He mastered his preferred style and has become a household name, with his Lo Wei collaborations fading into obscurity. But do you know what’s more interesting than “New Fists of Fury“? The story of the falling out between Lo Wei and Jackie Chan, which involves blackmail, Chinese crime syndicates and…Jimmy Wang Yu, whose life story makes blackmail and crime syndicates look mundane…But that is a tale for another writer, as “New Fists of Fury” ends Jackie’s involvement with this franchise…
FISTS OF FURY II (1977)
(Directed by Iksan Lahardi, Tso Nam Lee and Jimmy Shaw)
(Written by Hsin Yi Chang)
(Starring Bruce Li, Lieh Lo and Feng Tien)
During the Brucesploitation wave, stuntman Ho Chung Tao was given the name ‘Bruce Li’ and he would arguably become the most prolific of Bruce Lee’s imitators, as he had some talent and his resemblance to Lee was uncanny. He wasn’t only pushed as a successor, with titles such as “Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger” under his belt, he also got to star in the sequel to Bruce Lee’s most iconic film- “Fists of Fury“…sort of. This is technically a…semi-official sequel (?), with the true followup being “New Fists of Fury“. Director Lo Wei and actress Nora Miao chose to do that one, but “Fists of Fury II” gained some credibility by retaining a few of the supporting actors from the original classic, such as Feng Tien. Amusingly, “Fists of Fury II” wasn’t only released first, but it ended up being successful enough to get its own sequel, while “New Fists of Fury” was a notorious flop. This might be the only time in cinematic history where the fake sequel surpassed the official one and that is kind of hilarious. Bruce Li plays Chen Shen, the brother of Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee’s character from the first film), who randomly decides to show up in Shanghai to harass the Japanese. Miyamoto (Lieh Lo) is the new tyrant in town and while he doesn’t seem interested in proving Japanese superiority, he does want to make an example of Chen Zhen’s old kung fu school. He not only destroys it, but he targets anyone who dares shelter the former students, so Chen Shen will have to step in to save the day.
“Fists of Fury II” is OK, but the filmmakers try so hard to replicate the formula of the first one that they end up accidentally drawing attention to its inferiority. Once again, the Japanese are bullies who for some reason take orders from the weaselly Chinese interpreter, who so closely resembles his counterpart from the first film that I was convinced they were played by the same actors (they weren’t). Once again, there is a conflicted Inspector who must choose between his Japanese oppressors and his own people. Once again, 90% of Feng Tien’s material is dedicated to him trying to defuse tense situations, where he begs everyone not to fight. There are pivotal differences, but the narrative isn’t as powerful because Chen Shen doesn’t have the same emotional stakes that Chen Zhen did. He’s not really trying to avenge his brother, but he wasn’t a student of the Jingwu school either, so apparently he’s just there to troll the Japanese. He’s absent from the story for large chunks of time and I think the narrative would’ve been stronger if it focused on Feng Tien’s character, as he had a real arc. I was hoping that he would finally grow a spine, but “Fists of Fury II” deprives us of such a pay-off, so his fall from grace is almost unnecessary. They should’ve either changed protagonists or spent more time on the development of Chen Shen’s new relationships, so that the consequences of his actions would have more meaning. A lot of screen-time is just dedicated to random acts of humiliation towards minor Chinese characters and it eventually starts to get repetitive. There are a lot of exchanges, lines and scenes that are reprisals of earlier scenes, but add nothing other than filler. The music is also lacking as well…But still, “Fists of Fury II” has plenty of action and most of it is quite good. The choreography is solid and I do like how they scaled down Chen Shen’s abilities, as he’s not as skilled as his elder brother was. The final fight between him and Miyamoto is much more evenly matched and Chen Shen even finds himself on the defensive, so it’s easier to feel suspense. Bruce Li uses more fanciful techniques than Bruce Lee did, with his style of kung fu being more in line with what was common in the 1970’s (lots of acrobatics). His strikes lack the weight and power of Lee’s, but I thought Li carried the film pretty well with his agility and finesse. “Fists of Fury II” might take it a bit too far, but it does an effective job at making you HATE the villains, so when Li arrives to kick some ass…it was very gratifying. Li has the look, can act, kick ass convincingly and even has some charisma, although he lacks his physique. The choreography and aesthetics are somewhat generic, as “Fists of Fury II” is really just another kung fu flick, albeit one sharing the name of a genre classic. But it succeeds in enough areas to be enjoyable for what it is.
FISTS OF FURY III (1979)
(Directed by Lu Po Tu)
(Written by Lung Yueh)
(Starring Bruce Li, Yen Tsan Tang and Feng Ku)
The story of Chen Shen (Bruce Li) continues, as he returns home to Macao with his brothers’ ashes, wishing to retire from combat and take care of his blind mother (Lai Wang). Unfortunately, the occupying Japanese still hold a grudge, so they conspire to destroy him…using the ‘most absurdly complicated method that can possibly go wrong’ that they can think of…”Fists of Fury III” almost feels like it wasn’t originally meant to wear the ‘Fists of Fury’ title, as the Japanese seem like afterthoughts, despite them functioning as the primary villains. But then again, this could just be bad writing, as Chen Shen feels more like a plot device than a protagonist. Most of the screen-time is dedicated to Yen Tsan Tang’s character brooding because his fiance (Michelle Kim) is in love with Chen Shen. Chen Shen seems more romantically interested in Chiang Hui Tsai though, and…is this what people want out of a ‘Fists of Fury’ movie? I expect national pride and xenophobia, not a f@cking love triangle. I can only assume that the filmmakers knew that the formula had grown stale, so wanted to change things up a bit…by making the story resemble many, many, MANY other kung fu flicks. Most of these storythreads don’t have satisfying pay-offs either. Chen Shen’s preferred love interest could’ve been omitted entirely and there are a lot of characters whom I thought were supposed to be relevant, but they only appear for one scene, which usually felt like filler anyway. The final villain is absent throughout most of the story, so you only hate him because you’re told to hate him. In fact, this is the first “Fists of Fury” where the Japanese feel more like generic stock villains, with the emphasis being on the new weasel interpreter that all of these movies seem to have. I found the characterizations to be wildly inconsistent. Yen Tsan Tang plays Chen Shen’s rival, but his personality seems to change depending on what the plot requires of him. Michelle Kim’s character is arguably worse, as she seems cool with her fiance at first, then hates him out of nowhere, then seems to want him banished from the school because he’s not being played by Bruce Li, then hates him even more for a valid reason…then forgives him despite what he attempted to do…and then doesn’t even confront him when she discovers how far he has fallen, despite spending most of her screen-time talking down to him…Huh? For what it’s worth, the choreography is OK and this keeps “Fists of Fury III” from being unwatchable. The finale boasts some great atmosphere, thanks to the storm themed ambiance, dramatic lightning flashes and Bruce Li’s intense performance. His character snaps and he completely commands the screen, making me wish the movie had made better use of him throughout the first and second acts. There are some baffling editing choices though…and I noticed a lot of phony looking beards and wigs amongst the extras…so this is still pretty bad in its own way. It’s strange how “Fists of Fury III” and “New Fists of Fury” suffer from a lot of the same problems, but “New Fists of Fury” is more in line with what a sequel within this franchise should be, while “Fists of Fury III” is a generic kung fu feature calling itself a sequel…and yet its failures don’t stand out as much. At least it ends on a strong note, as that final fight was bad-ass! Nevertheless, it was time to end the Chen Zhen film series…for the moment…
Ho Chung Tao would eventually grow tired of being ‘Bruce Li’ and retired from the film industry, settling down as a physical education instructor. Even if he could never be the real deal, most of us agree that he was the best of Bruce Lee’s clones and his imitation was so spot on that he even starred as Bruce Lee in “Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth“, which is apparently GOOD. He might’ve been disappointed and frustrated that his career amounted to being a marketing gimmick, but I think he was still a really good performer who captured just enough of that Bruce Lee magic to be worth watching. Even though Brucesploitation allowed Jackie Chan to get his start, he didn’t contribute much to this subgenre, nor did it really contribute to his career in the long run. I would argue that Brucesploitation’s greatest- if only- gift to cinema was Bruce Li, whose presence made schlocky, bad or bland movies worth watching.
FIST OF LEGEND (1994)
(Directed by Gordon Chan)
(Written by Kwong Kim Yip and Gordon Chan)
(Starring Jet Li, Shinobu Nakayama and Billy Chow)
For a long time, Jet Li was my favorite martial arts star and even though “Lethal Weapon 4” was my introduction to his awesomeness, it was “Fist of Legend” that turned me into a fangirl. At the time, if you asked me to review the movie, all I’d be able to write down would be…f@cking awesome! But don’t worry, my critiquing capabilities have expanded far enough that I can more thoroughly elaborate on my feelings…I would now say “It’s really f@cking awesome…because it’s f@cking awesome“. “Fist of Legend” is a remake of “Fists of Fury” and the basic story is still the same, even though the details are quite different. In 1937, the Japanese military are occupying Shanghai, restricting the rights of the Chinese citizens. Chen Zhen (Jet Li) is currently studying in Japan and has even fallen in love with a Japanese girl named Mitsuko (Shinobi Nakayama). But when he learns that his master, Huo Yuanjia (whom Jet Li also portrayed in “Fearless“), has been killed in a fight with a Japanese martial artist, he rushes home to investigate. “Fist of Legend” isn’t anywhere near as bleak as “Fists of Fury“, as they downplay the revenge angle and you don’t feel like its protagonist is slowly descending into madness. Instead, this incarnation of Chen Zhen is a lot less bloodthirsty, simply looking for a place to belong. The film deals with love, politics, honor and combat philosophy…in between lots of F@CKING AWESOME MARTIAL ARTS SCENES. The combined efforts of Jet Li, director Gordon Chan and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping lead to some of the best choreography ever captured on film. There are so many cool techniques on display, piled upon other really cool techniques…and Jet Li looks really cool while doing those really cool techniques! The duel between Chen Zhen and Funakoshi (Yasuaki Kurata) might be the best on-screen fight that I’ve ever seen, as the moves are so fluid and diverse, yet strategy and philosophy are seamlessly woven into the action. Most of the screen-time seems dedicated to either fighting, training or posturing, but when fists aren’t connecting with faces, I found the characters to be compelling enough to hold everything together. I liked the dynamics Chen Zhen shared with Ting-En (Siu-Ho Chin), Funakoshi and Mitsuko. Whereas “Fists of Fury” was an expression of pent-up rage, “Fist of Legend” seems to be more about healing, as there are some positive Japanese characters. But you still really love to hate General Fujita (Billy Chow)! He is INTENSE, but you really want to see him get taken down and the way the conflict with him is resolved has to be one of the most bad-ass conclusions to a fight ever! “Fist of Legend” is a martial arts masterpiece, probably even surpassing the original. Unfortunately, it was released during a period when the Hong Kong film industry was in a decline, so under-performed financially. Jet Li was already an established star, but “Fist of Legend” was the beginning of a box office slump for him. His movies weren’t necessarily bombing, but they weren’t grossing as much as they used too either. Nevertheless, Li’s career would soon recover and he would become a kung fu icon, while “Fist of Legend” would become a genre classic!
HERO YOUNGSTER (2004)
(Directed by Gang Hung and Chi Lo)
(Written by Chu Chu…)
(Starring Tsui Siu-Lung, Yuen Biao and Marsha Yuen)
“Hero Youngster“, also known as “Juvenile Chen Zhen“, was apparently a made-for-TV feature and…it shows…Throughout my viewing experience, I was often impressed by how cheap the production values looked, despite the convoluted and strangely ambitious storyline. Chen Zhen (Tsui Siu-Lung) might be a young boy, but he’s shockingly skilled at martial arts in spite of his age. Set during the early days of the 2nd Sino-Japanese war, Chen Zhen stumbles across a Manchurian Princess (Marsha Yuen), who carries a secret that can potentially repel the impending Japanese Invasion. Unfortunately, a Japanese Agent (Billy Chow) is aware of this and will relentlessly pursue her. That was a simplified version of the plot, which has many other storythreads that somehow end up being connected together through the power of bad writing. When Chen Zhen first meets the Princess, they go their separate paths, but through sheer coincidence end up meeting again…like two scenes later…and then they go their separate paths AGAIN, but through an even more ridiculous coincidence, they are reunited AGAIN. Why did they even have to split up if they were immediately going to run back into each-other? I’m guessing it’s the same reason as to why they tried to build a mystery out of Yuen Biao’s character or the identity of the Princess’s Uncle. These characters’ motivations make little sense and the audience will figure it out immediately, but the movie is only trying to buy time for the finale. The filmmakers know they don’t have enough material to tell a compelling story, so they stretch everything out past its breaking point and bloat up the narrative with filler. This makes for a slow paced affair, even though the running time is relatively short. I’m not familiar with Chinese Television, so it’s possible that “Hero Youngster” is just a casualty of the medium. You can tell that the filmmakers are struggling with the budget, as they’re constantly falling back on the exact same sets and the dubbing for THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE VERSION doesn’t even come close to syncing with the actors mouths.
The finale is a big battle sequence, but the editor fails to keep it cohesive, so it became difficult to tell who was where. The supporting cast often look bored, which becomes amusing when they’re expected to wave their arms around dramatically, but can’t bring themselves to put any effort into their body language. Oh yeah, don’t even try to tie this in with the other Chen Zhen movies, as you’ll only end up confused, as his origins seemingly have nothing to do with the events of “Fists of Fury“. If anything, Chen Zhen’s exploits as an adult now seem insignificant to what he accomplished as a child, siphoning away some of the original films power…It’s bad enough when a movie sucks on its own, but when it starts doing damage to its predecessors, you know your franchise has gone down a dark path… But do you know what? The fights scenes are actually alright. Tsui Siu-Lung is a surprisingly convincing bad-ass, even though he’s a little kid. His agility and moveset were impressive and he didn’t seem to be afraid of taking bumps. I also liked Marsha Yuen’s more elegant style. The choreography is stellar, but whereas I would normally be downplaying the bad…everything else…in favor of the solid fight scenes, this time I have to dismiss my few praises. “Hero Youngster” is too dull and plodding to be enjoyable, even if the fight scenes did keep me from completely falling asleep.
LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)
(Directed by Andrew Lau)
(Written by Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan)
(Starring Donnie Yen, Shu Qi and Anthony Wong)
“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” is apparently supposed to be a sequel to “Fist of Legend“, with Donnie Yen filling in for Jet Li, although they don’t do a really good job at connecting the two narratives. Then again, I’ve also heard that its a sequel to a “Fists of Fury” T.V series that also starred Yen, so who knows? It’s not like this franchise has ever been organized…I have to make a confession…I saw this movie when it was first released in the United States, but wasn’t really in the mood to revisit “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” for this marathon and this is quite the problem as I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I’ve chosen to recycle my original review, but the plot is so convoluted that it’s possible I will make some mistakes here and there…Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) returns to China under a different identity, where he joins an underground resistance to repel the Japanese invaders. “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” seems to have a grandiose vision that is matched by its impressive visual panache. For what it’s worth, this might not be a great movie, but it has the cinematography of a great movie. The environments, the costumes and the color schemes all reflect the time period in an over-the-top, stylish kind of way. The fight scenes are good…albeit not great…I feel like the choreography was functioning as support for the cinematography, as there is a lot of posturing in front of cool looking backgrounds. This was fine and I still thought the choreography was stellar, but the editing often disrupted the flow by speeding them up or gutting them. Chen Zhen would knock someone down, but the next shot is of him hitting someone else and the time skip is so sudden that your brain can hardly keep up. There isn’t a lot of action either, at least compared to the other entries of this franchise, so you’re forced to pay attention to the nice aesthetics and the sloppy storytelling. Personally, I felt the best scene in the movie was the prologue, where Chen Zhen is in the army, fighting the Germans for some reason. I don’t believe it was necessary and is tonally at odds with the rest of the film, but the set pieces were very nicely staged.
But…what kind of movie was I supposed to be watching? “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” wants to be more than just a martial arts opus, it wants to be a dramatic epic! The problem is that there is a disconnect amongst many of its storythreads, making a significant amount of the running-time feel wasted. Allegedly, a lot of material was left out on the editing room floor, so maybe the deleted scenes would either give satisfying pay-offs or at least tighten the narrative. The Japanese Colonel (Yasuaki Kurata) is trying to pit two Chinese Generals against each-other, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Chen Zhen has to gain the trust of Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong), who quickly becomes an afterthought. Chen Zhen falls in love with Kiki (Shu Qi), who has a dark secret and…I’m not going to criticize the movie for having a shallow love story, as there was no way it could be properly developed with so much else going on…But did we need those scenes involving her friendship with the Chinese General’s girlfriend? NO! It’s as if 40% of the content serves no purpose, but unlike “Hero Youngster“, I don’t think it’s intended to be filler. I simply believe that the filmmakers grew too ambitious and let their story go off the rails. Also, did Chen Zhen have a sister in “Fist of Legend“? He does so now! I was going to scold the movie for taking a simple-yet-effective martial arts film series and filtering it through their artsy aspirations, but then I remembered I loved “The Raid 2: Berendal“, which did the same thing except better…and then I also remembered that I normally applaud sequels for deviating from their established formulas and trying something new…and then I remembered that nothing I just listed is bad as much as it just keeps the movie from being particularly good. The running time is just too short to sustain this convoluted plot.
Yet even worse than the messy narrative is the confused tone…Now don’t get me wrong, we aren’t talking schlocky 1990’s Kong Kong cinema amounts of bi-polar, nor are we even referring to Sammo Hung styled dissociative identity disorder, but I kind of wish it was either of those as then “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” might have been a more fascinating experience. Once again, the tone problems keep the movie from reaching its full potential, instead of making it a trainwreck…and that’s a little boring for me…There are times when Chen Zhen resembles a f@cking super hero, practically to the point of dodging bullets, but then the story slows down…becomes more grounded in reality…adopts a bleaker aesthetic…becomes more political…pretty much everything that does not go well with Chen Zhen dressing up as Kato, Bruce Lee’s character from “The Green Hornet“…I don’t mind homaging an old, campy TV series, but maybe not in this kind of dramatic story? I couldn’t take it seriously at all. Chen Zhen’s sister gets raped and I felt sad, but shortly afterwards Donnie Yen starts imitating those Bruce Lee battle cries and it sounds so silly. Once again, what am I supposed to be watching? Or feeling? I’m laughing too much during dark and serious scenes! They did not need all of these references to Bruce Lee, which feel pandering and gratuitous to the point of becoming distracting. I’m probably sounding more hostile than I feel, as even if the narrative is broken, the cracks are filled with gorgeous imagery and some slick fight scenes. “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” is not a bad movie, it’s just not the masterpiece it was desperately striving to be. This was produced during a somewhat awkward period, when Donnie Yen was trying to find steady ground after delivering his masterpiece- “Yip Man“. He was unhappy with how “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” turned out though and despite a strong opening weekend, it disappointed at the box office. Even though I respect the ambition put into this project, “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” did not need to be part of this franchise. I never felt like Donnie Yen and Jet Li were playing the same character, although Yen’s performance is still really good. The previous films were cutting edge martial arts flicks, so it must’ve seemed odd for audiences to get a limited amount of kung fu this time around. But hey, the filmmakers deserve credit for trying and at least it’s no “Hero Youngster“…
There is no denying the legacy and impact of “Fists of Fury” on Chinese audiences and most would agree that it’s at least one of Bruce Lee’s finest showings, but it probably should have never become a franchise. The sequels were only produced because the Brucesploitation wave had crashed into the industry and no, I’m not going to naively insinuate that sequels aren’t usually made for financial reasons. But when you have two movies from different studios claiming to be ‘the true’ sequel, it’s going to disorient the masses…and you probably shouldn’t confuse audiences during a time period where they’re already confused as to the difference between Bruce Li and Bruce Le. Brucesploitation was ultimately just a phase, but when it came to its inevitable end, it suffered a ‘Disco’-esque backlash. People treated it as a source of embarrassment and shame, so a lot of careers fell along with the subgenre, particularly the ‘Bruce Lee clones’ themselves. I think this controversy tainted the “Fists of Fury” brand in the eyes of potential viewers and this is the primary reason why “Fist of Legend” and “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” under-performed at the box office, in spite of the star power both movies were armed with. This was unfortunate, because while most entries in this franchise were made for cynical reasons, “Fist of Legend” was amazing and “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen“…um, tried to be amazing…They were conceived through genuine inspiration, but they were guilty by association. There are other factors at work here too, such as the reboots using different titles, so maybe audiences weren’t even aware of the connection. Furthermore, “Fists of Fury” was so influential that national pride had become a staple of the industry, so by the 1990’s it was common to see Chinese heroes rising up against Japan, England or America. Chen Zhen just no longer seemed unique or necessary in today’s climate and I think people only want to see Bruce Lee in the role, as much as they may love Jet Li, Donnie Yen or Jackie Chan. Speaking of whom, Jackie Chan is indirectly responsible for the end of Brucesploitation, as he would mold the industry in his image. I enjoyed this marathon for the most part, as even its failures were interesting to learn and write about. Because the franchise was not meant to be a franchise, the sequels are all optional and you can start and end anywhere…except the Bruce Li movies, as they do require you know what went down in the original. The rest might call themselves reboots, sequels or prequels, but they function as standalone films, so you don’t need to worry too much about continuity lockouts. At the absolute least, “Fist of Legend” is one of the best kung fu flicks ever made and “Fists of Fury” is pretty awesome too, but let’s be honest…you’ve probably seen them both by now.