On Peak Jet Li, Martial Arts Cinema, and the Beauty of Fist of Legend

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On Peak Jet Li, Martial Arts Cinema, and the Beauty of <i>Fist of Legend</i>

When casual viewers and cinephiles think about martial arts cinema, many think of the legends of the genre—Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. True, both opened the doors for Hollywood to adapt their style of assault into bigger budgeted features, and their contributions still echo through the halls of international cinema. There are others, though, who deserve credit. Sonny Chiba helped propel the genre in the post-Bruce Lee ’70s (on his way to becoming a narrative element in Quentin Tarantino’s universe with 1993’s True Romance). Chuck Norris was the epitome of the American marital arts star in the ’80s, as was Steven Seagal. Belgian kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme brought unprecedented athleticism and striking skills to the forefront of American action cinema during his heyday, and Jet Li, a criminally underutilized commodity in the U.S. action industry, left a small but notable footprint in the early 2000s.

Today, stars like Tony Jaa (The Protector), Donnie Yen (The Ip Man series), Iko Uwais (The Raid: Redemption), and Jason Statham (The Transporter) carry the banner for contemporary martial arts pictures, and like their predecessors, they are highly skilled participants in a revered and oft-imitated genre of cinema.

Of the aforementioned, there are few who exhibited such athletic grace, raw speed and power, along with magnetic on-screen presence, as Jet Li. Small in stature but large in skill, Li was a potent combination of jaw-dropping ferocity and precision, elements that made him one of China’s biggest stars before his migration to Hollywood with 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4. Much in the same way Tony Jaa dazzles audiences today with his fearless feats and wireless stunts, Li was amazing audiences in Asia in the ’80s and ’90s with his profound timing, agility and range of motion.

By the time he arrived in the States, Li had already done his best work, and the Hollywood action system—with its propensity for rapid, blurry-vision cuts and wire work—did nothing to advance the vocation Li had spent over a decade perfecting. When he was at the height of his powers, few were as magnificent to watch as Jet Li. And, at that apex, came 1994’s Fist of Legend, a masterpiece of martial arts cinema.

To understand the importance of that film, one must understand the legacy of which it was born. Asian action cinema was popularized by Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese auteur who mastered the art of camera movement. He’s arguably the father of Asian action cinema, and he solidified several tropes that would become cornerstones of the martial arts genre, e.g., the samurai code—a notion of heroics, derived from a Japanese feudal military caste, that states that those with the skill and courage to do battle with evil must do so accordingly. Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and the success of that film opened up the cherished Western sector’s gates to Asian cinema.

China had its own version of the samurai code, known as Wuxia, and it, too, espoused the tenets of loyalty, integrity and fighting spirit. (Wuxia fiction is probably best known in the States through Ang Lee’s 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) The Shaw Brothers emerged in China during the 1960s as the forefathers of the modern martial arts movie, producing films like 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman, which broke Hong Kong box office records. That film also featured the talents of Woo-Ping Yuen (only 22 at the time), who would later establish himself as one of the backbones of Asian and American action cinema.

In 1971, Bruce Lee arrived, and with him came a newfound interest in martial arts films. With the Shaw Brothers at the helm, martial arts pictures and American interest in martial arts as a form of exercise and self-defense exploded. U.S. television programs like Black Belt Theatre and Kung Fu Theatre regularly featured Shaw Brothers’ productions, and films like Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin became part of pop-culture lexicon. Many of these pictures revolved around similar themes—revenge fantasies hinging on a master being killed and a student out for vengeance. The Asian action boom of the ’70s bled into the ’80s, and it is in these early years of the decade that Jet Li would cut his teeth as a new action star.

For 1982’s The Shaolin Temple, Li received his first starring role at the tender age of 19. By then, he was already a renowned martial artist in his homeland, having competed and won at the Wushu Chinese National Championships at only 12 years old. The film was a lightning rod for the genre, and with its success began the progression of Li’s career. He starred in successful sequels to The Shaolin Temple, and he played the lead in 1991’s Once Upon a Time in China, which helped spark another martial arts craze in the early to mid-’90s. By 1994, Li was arguably the biggest Asian action star in the world. That year, he teamed up with Woo-Ping Yuen—who transitioned from acting to become perhaps the best fight choreographer in cinema history—for a film titled Fist of Legend, with Li himself serving as producer of the venture.

Set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1937, the film follows many of the tropes of its predecessors: Li is a student who must avenge his master’s death at the hands of the ruthless Japanese General Fujita (Billy Chow). But, unlike many of its peers, Fist of Legend announces to viewers from the very beginning—when Li’s Chen Zhen fights a class of rival students—that its aim is to surpass the watermark in fight choreography set before it.

In the initial schoolhouse brawl, Li’s speed is front and center. He flows around attacks like an oil slick bending around a buoy. Although the camera movement is hyper-realized, it’s amazing to see the technical prowess that Li commands. In martial arts, there is a routine of placing together strings of strikes, blocks and movements—these are called “forms.” Li is essentially crafting his own unique forms in these fight sequences, and the result is a distinct ballad of blows and combinations that tell their own story outside the context of the overall narrative.

Woo-Ping Yuen and Li create an economy of violence with the five or six main fight sequences, with Li largely overmatching his opponents—whether it be one, or on two separate occasions, dozens—by swaying and swinging his body out of the way of oncoming attacks while unleashing his own salvos. Through these first sequences, we get the feeling that Li is wholly unmatched in his fighting aptitude. It is not until he duels his best friend and new master, Hou Ting-En (Siu-Ho Chin), that we begin to see slight chinks in the master fighter’s armor. Additional weaknesses become apparent when Li fights the uncle of a fellow student in a battle that sees both men don blindfolds. More than any of his opponents, the older, veteran fighter exposes holes in Chen Zhen’s style.

In these two instances, Yuen and Li are embellishing the talents of Li’s foes, but they are also building to the pinnacle of the film: the final fight with the evil General Fujita. The vulnerabilities that pop up in the penultimate battles give the audience a sense that Li is not the fighter he’s initially portrayed to be, and that General Fujita—in one scene he picks a man up over his head and snaps him like a branch over his knee—just might emerge victorious from their inevitable battle. These are calculated measures by Li and Yuen, and in the flying feet of martial arts rhetoric, Fist of Legend excels in delivering a methodical physical narrative atop the traditional elements built by Lee, Chiba and those who preceded them.

For the final act, Li’s Chen Zhen and General Fujita engage in a war of attrition, but it’s important to note the first steps in their battle. After Fujita defeats Hou Ting-En with his supreme strength and speed, Zhen and the General square up. Up until this point, both men have come out of their previous battles relatively unscathed, but Fujita has been positioned throughout the narrative as a man of uncanny strength and ability. (Such is the hallmark of a good antagonist.) Zhen has never met a man with Fujita’s talent for wreckage, and in their first trade-off, Zhen sticks a standing sidekick into his abdomen sending the towering villain backwards. The blow stands as a Dikembe Mutombo “not in my house” moment, and places the foes on even ground for the commencing fray.

Zhen and Fujita then engage in a 10-minute skirmish—a veritable lifetime in film economy—that see both men give and take punishment. The fighting undulates in various forms of fight techniques, but when Fujita begins to lose at fisticuffs, he brandishes a sword. Zhen responds by removing his belt, whipping the metal buckle around his body like a scorpion wielding its stinger. During this lengthy marathon of a finale, Li is flying, dashing and charging in and out of stances and movements with the grace and gusto of a bull with ballet slippers. It’s awe-inspiring to see a human being with such command of his physical faculties. Watching Jet Li in this final sequence is akin to gazing upon a meteor shower during a blood moon—it’s that magnificent. Where Bruce Lee had lightning fast speed, where Jackie Chan had death-defying leaps of bravery, Jet Li has poetic instances of genuine physical brilliance.

For fans of the martial arts genre, it doesn’t matter who wins in the end. (Zhen wins, if you’re wondering.) Fist of Legend is Jet Li and Woo-Ping Yuen each at the very top of his game. This film is also the shining star on Yuen’s résumé that helped win him high-profile gigs as the choreographer on The Matrix trilogy and the Kill Bill films. More than anything, Fist of Legend encapsulates the legend of Jet Li. No, his Hollywood résumé, with the exception of the quite satisfying Kiss of the Dragon, did not live up to his capacity for ballistic brutality. But the 100 minutes we got of Li in Fist of Legend? It is 99 percent better than anything else in the martial arts movie pantheon. What more could you ask for?

Fist of Legend is currently streaming on Netflix.

Dariel is a writer, music producer, radio show host, father, lover of all things pop culture, and once hugged Charlize Theron at a New Mexico bowling alley. He graduated from Rowan University in 2010 with Bachelor’s in film production and journalism, and his writing has appeared at Heavy and Uproxx. You can reach him on Twitter