Legend of the Fist opens with a World War I battle, Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) leaping into a pit of Japanese soldiers for a heroic save. Zhen holds nothing back, whipping knives and bayonets around in a frenzy of blood and violence, this Chinese nationalist tale only beginning its fury against the Japanese invaders.
Yen is immeasurably skilled, flipping and kicking with the best of them throughout this somewhat convoluted narrative about Chinese rebellion. Post-war and heading into WWII, we’re introduced to Casablanca, a snazzy nightclub that proves to be the centerpiece of this turf war, somewhat contained to a singular street right in front of the club. Other sets are minor, giving the film a tight, restrained scale when the rebellion itself was such a crucial event.
For whatever constraints it is forced to deal with, Legend of the Fist remains flashy and stylish, coming from the lens of director Andrew Lau, responsible for the Internal Affairs series. He gives Legend some brevity to push forward with additional action, in the mix chopping up modest roles while making a bumbling police force seem completely out of place.
It’s a bit of a jumble to piece together until the basics are in place, the Japanese commander portrayed here with no regard for women, the Chinese people, or their culture. He’s sadistic, enough to set up that inevitable final confrontation with Zhen who has become a voice for his people merely through his actions.
That wait is worth it, Zhen first tackling what appears to be about 100 Japanese students, bringing with him a pair of nunchucks for added grace and slow motion blows to the face. Yen’s kicks are second to none, here exaggerated to send the students through walls, weapon racks, or anything else that the laws of physics dictate should shatter. The one-on-one brawl to come is equal parts tension and raw fury, enough that the credits roll proves satisfying even if the rebellion has yet to see its end. There’s always a sequel.
Hint to foreign filmmakers: making your movies look like they came from the Michael Bay factory does not give them any international appeal. It makes them look terrible, and Legend of the Fist is simply ravaged by a distressing orange and teal palette that is offensive to the senses. People do not glow. Ever. It doesn’t matter how much they tan, what they eat, or what the lighting conditions are, but according to this film, everyone in post-World War I China glistened orange. They even complemented their newly found skin tones with teal lighting and tchotchkes. How quaint and eye-searing.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only fault here, the encode bringing with it some rather glaring banding at times, unable to keep up with the fluctuating grain structure. Faced with an endless barrage of cigarette smoke, Legend’s high bitrate AVC encode still can’t keep up. This is the likely source of a somewhat dominate digital appearance, washing faces clean of detail and giving them a flat, textureless characteristic. That’s not always true, a number of close-ups simply stunning in their definition, while the rest are bound to disappoint. The bad outweighs the good.
Black levels provide more trickiness, wavering when and where they choose. Crush becomes a considerable concern in certain conditions or special effects shot, an early CG aerial of the city lost to a blob of darkness. Other scenes reveal the black levels forgetting to make a statement, washing the image clean of its depth and general dimensionality. Maybe they’re trying to prevent that high contrast ringing from making yet another showing, that little artifact popping up under certain situations.
When everything is stable, i.e., the grain is controlled, medium shots prove textured, compression isn’t evident, Legend of the Fist looks clean. Nothing can change the gaudy colors, but there’s a sense that underneath the digital intermediate and maybe even some tinkering in the transfer phase, this one looked fantastic.
Exaggerations continue with the audio, the opening war sequence fueled with hot bass that needs tightness more than it needs volume. It’s an audacious start, one you need to be ready for. Once the explosions quiet down, gunfire begins to smash its way into the mix, the surrounds lighting up with individual bullet strikes, scattered debris, and other chaos on the battlefield.
The low-end will mercifully settle down into an extension of the action, not the overpowering force it’s trying to be. Punches are accompanied by thumps that are of course overdone, but pleasing to the ears while establishing a sense of impact. Later explosions are somewhat more restrained too, if a little on the muddy side. The highlight due to the overly boomy bass becomes a shoot-out in a thunderstorm, the rain pouring onto the streets and fantastically lighting up the surrounds as bullets careen around the soundfield. Zhen comes into the fray about midway through and adds his own flair of swirling kicks.
The Casablanca club provides its own audio aura, the jazzy tunes enveloping the soundfield with a natural, clean air. There’s a tense conversational stand off at 52:43 that leads to a coin spinning on the table, the air “whoosh” effect superlative in its travels through the channels. Probably of most interest though is that this film marks Hong Kong’s first 7.1 mix ever, yet this US Blu-ray only delivers a 5.1 mix, Mandarin or English dub.
Aside from trailers, there are two extras in the menu, duo “fly on the wall” behind-the-scenes features, one from the opening war sequence, the second on various scenes in the club. This is always appreciated as it’s more honest than the typical talking head piece.