A lot of movies are based around bad ideas.
Wait, sit back down, I'm not talking about the Saw sequels. I mean the plots are spurred by a character's bad idea. Like, say, filling an island with carnivorous dinosaurs.
High on my list of bad ideas: killing a kung fu master. Sure, you took the head honcho out, but that dude was like 80 years old. What do you do when his fit young students come hunt you down? As 1994's Fist of Legend shows, you get punched. A lot.
After learning his master has died in a challenge match, Jet Li leaves his schooling in Japan to return to China and investigate the truth. But his master died to a Japanese karate expert -- and on the brink of World War II, Li's investigation turns up a conspiracy that could send the two nations to war.
It's hard to believe the Japanese brass would seriously consider taking on China, however, when Li's clearly capable of taking down their entire military by himself. In Fist of Legend's opening scene, a dojo's worth of karatekas attempts to kick the foreigner out of their school. Li beats them like a rug that neglected its chores and blew the grocery money playing Dig Rug at the rug arcade.
You'd presume that opening with a brawl that big would leave a movie with nowhere to go in terms of spectacle. You can probably already guess that you're wrong, so I'll spare you the indignity and move right along.
Fist of Legend isn't about massive, anonymous armies whomping up on each other. It's about the integrity of individual warriors. Well, that and forbidden love. And how Japan's kinda jerks but in some ways China and Japan have a lot in common and should go have a beer together some time.
But mostly, it's the honor of individuals thing. Fittingly, while Fist of Legend's got a couple sweet melees, its best fights are one-on-one.
It peaks with Li's showdown against Japan's top fighter, Yasuaki Kurata. After several minutes of whaling on each other, a dusty wind blinds Kurata; to keep things fair, Li dons a blindfold. Director/co-writer Gordon Chan proceeds to put on a clinic on how you show fighters using senses other than their sight. (Spoiler: They hire woodland animals to do the seeing for them.)
Chan tells a pretty good story too. Fist of Legend slows down for a bit in the middle, and the ending's a little rushed, but he handles his themes well without bogging down the nonstop stream of intrigue. Fist of Legend's plot kicks just as hard as Li.
* Contact Ed Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org