What to do while watching:
What to eat while watching:
My tombstone might well read, "Here lies Gooden Worsted. He liked kung fu movies, but only when they focussed on beautiful martial arts choreography and physical prowess, and not when they relied on special effects, quick cuts, tight shots, and big guns." Those who would have engraved my gravestone might have been able to shorten this to: "He liked Jackie Chan, but not Jet Li,," except that I've been lucky enough to see Li's Fist of Legend before passing from this sphere; and so my epitaph carvers will need to spell it out in full.
I think both of these elder states-people of kung fu fighting, Chan and Li, are slowing down in terms of physical prowess. Jackie Chan is relying more heavily on clever settings and co-stars in his latest pictures. He rehashes the same old stunts again and again, and one can hardly blame him after all of the injuries he's endured in the name of entertainment. But maybe it's time for him to hang up the wooden benches and live of residuals. The truth is that Legend of Drunken Master, now in theaters, is fantastic: Chan at his all-out best. But this picture, I'm told, was made six or seven years ago, just as Chan began to get his firm following in the U.S. Nowadays, as an established Hollywood glitterer, Chan will no longer work with co-stars who will consent to being thrown from balconies or smashed with bamboo poles. And Chan will never again, I predict, crawl through hot coals for the sake of a pulse-stopping scene.
What's so great about L of DM and most of Chan's older films is that you get to see a well-crafted rendition of flashy martial arts. Of course you can't expect much of a story, but if you go into the experience hoping to see a fighting style demonstrated in a way that makes you gasp, you'll never be disappointed. (See my review of Chan's oeuvre.) Chan and Li are both masters of acrobatic martial arts. I do not know if either would be terribly tough in a non-scripted fight, but knowing that Chan does his own stunts and that it really is his body that's in such great shape is what makes his movies so enthralling.
Li has always struck me (no pun intended) as more lithe and more serious than Chan. His moves also come off more stylishly than Bruce Lee's. Jet Li's recent works have always disappointed me because the cuts are as fast as Hollywood obliges. The shots are tight and the special effects severely dampen the awe I might feel about his abilities. His speed, strength, and accuracy are reduced to camera tricks and left to my imagination to fill in.
But at last I have found a Jet Li specimen where his pugilism is framed perfectly. Here are my favorite moves:
Simple yet effective, Li takes out a roomful of attackers with a series of rotating kicks, shot from above.
This list goes on, but this last example illustrates why this, finally, is such a good piece of kung-fu excitement. We get a fast cut of Li's flying leap. A close-up of his foot being caught. A look on his face: a look on his opponents face, then a full body shot in slo-mo of Li going into the kick-flip. A tight shot of the meeting of foot and chin. And the rest of the flip, executed in a graceful slo-mo.
I am shown that quick cuts and tight shots can work--but only if I can see the full body too. The fact that Li himself flips head over heels and lands in a way that would make Mary Lou Retton smile is what makes me exclaim. Had the quick cut of foot and chin then flashed to a cut of Li standing confidently, I would have been sore disappointed. And that kind of silliness is just what's wrong with Romeo Must Die and Black Mask in my humble, but correct, opinion. Not to mention the awful story lines of those two dogs.
Not to be overshadowed by the action, this film actually has a somewhat more interesting story than the usual kung-fu plot. Transcending the typical Wrestlemania-type story line, Li recreates the tale of a WWII hero of China, one Chen Zien, thebest student of his Chinese dojo. Studying at a Japanese academy during mounting tensions between the two countries, Chen must return to China when he learns that his master has been killed by a Japanese fighter. The rivalry between dojos, fueled by political unrest, blooms violence and revenge. Meanwhile, a very mean and powerful Japanese Axis general, dressed in evil-stud Nazi regalia, has taken his Samurai lifestyle to the dark side, abandoning his code of honor for victory at all costs. Yes, there's vengeance, poison, betrayal.
Furthermore Chen Zien has fallen in love with a Japanese woman from the academy who wants to marry him. He is exiled from his dojo and is repeatedly forced into the role of solo vigilante. The master of the dojo, practically a brother to Chen, is secretly in love with a Chinese prostitute. And he experiences some issues around Chen's return since Chen is the superior fighter, and several of the master's students want to go with Chen instead.
All of these plot points are well carried. Often martial arts films that aspire to plot will leave gaping holes with astonishing carelessness. Although Fist of Legend's story is certainly subservient to its amazing fight scenes, it is at least woven with care, and acted with tenderness. Often, the acting errs on the side of melodrama, but I chalk it up to this being Hong Kong's aesthetic. Then I settle in for the next scrap!
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.