The legend of Chen Zhen has been a mainstay in Chinese martial arts films for the past 40 years, ever since Bruce Lee exploded on the screen. There have been many incarnations of the folklore hero, who fights off the Japanese’s claim that the Chinese are the “sick men of Asia” during World War II through espienage, political rebellion and, of course, kung fu madness! It never gets old, however, as watching the ‘main men’ Lee, Li, and Yen (see the rhyme there?), brings with it a distinctive style and storyline for each man. Thus, the highlights of Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend, and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen are vastly different. The question is: who wore it better?
Fighting out of this corner is Donny Yen, the Green Hornet. In terms of romeo-esque smoothness, Mr. Yen easily takes the cake over Lee and Li, as Yen’s “Clark Kent Lifetyle” is as a Chinese playboy mixing and mingling with elite Chinese businessmen and Japanese soldiers and generals. The cinematography of Legend of the Fist is similar to the some Hong Kong melodramas, along with a tad of John Woo-ism visuals in the mix. What I mean to say is that the atmosphere is heavy, like a sea’s fog, creating a dream-like quality that encapsulate the narrative. Add 1940’s jazz and swing music, and you’ll be looking for Bogart to walk out of a dark alley around the corner. Complements for the story, however, albiet smart-ass, are not so forthcoming. The martial arts action is, well, borderline fucking ridiculous to the point of parody or slapstick. Also, it certainly does not help matters by playing up nostalgia, placing Yen in Kato’s costome simply because Bruce Lee played Kato in the TV adaptation of The Green Hornet. The action is rapid, almost too much so, as it’s full of cuts and wire work, but it does get better within the last 30 minutes during the final showdown: after sustaining much damage, Donnie removes his shirt (ala Lee), revealing an impecably defined midsection and kicks unholy ass in what is actually a riviting fight scene. It is too late, too late however. Donnie Yen? You get the bronze medal my friend.
Our next contender is Jet Li in Fist of Legend. Li’s martial arts style is closer to Lee’s than Yen’s, using close quarters combat techniques derived from Jeet Kune Do. Li’s dress and manner is also similar to Lee’s, leaving Yen as the odd man out. Beside the fact that he never removes his top, Li is a dead ringer for Bruce Lee. I do not believe that the film employs wire work (I’m usually wrong though), but there is quite a bit of editing in the fight scenes (along with the addition of stunt men). All that being said, Li’s strikes are lethal, just not as brutal and viscious as Lee’s. It’s the film’s narrative that really makes Fist of Legend stand out from it’s Chen Zhen peers. All three films carry a political overtone, yet the weight of political importance in Fist of Legend is more than just an overtone, it is the narrative, in so far that the majority of scenes, fights, and dialogue is either driven by politics or is/are about the struggle of the Chinese against the Japanese Empire. A ‘new edition’ to this film is the Japanese girlfriend who returns with Zhen as he studies abroad in Japan which, undoubtably, adds to the climate’s political tension, yet moreso for the film’s emotional pull on the heartstrings. Compared to Legend of the Fist, Li’s outing is a superior film to Yen’s in terms of narrative and kung fu action, yet Legend of the Fist‘s direction has style to spare when compared to the low-key, relatively safe direction of Li’s Fist of Legend. When it all comes down to it (the final countdown, the final showdown), Jet takes home the silver.
Ladies and gentlemen, Friscalating Dusklight presents: Fist. Of. Fury! Without hesitation, without thinking, without sound or dialogue, Fist of Fury is the definative tale of Chen Zhen among the popular retellings. It’s not the story, as the film’s narrative is stoic and simple. It’s not the cinematography nor the direction, and it sure as hell ain’t the dialogue. So, what are we left with Gramps? Lee, Bruce Lee. The man… I can’t even finish that sentence. He’s got “it.” As much as this is commonplace, he really must be experienced to be believed. Include the documentary, How Bruce Lee Changed the World after viewing Fist of Fury and you’ll want to join the closest martial arts school, study Jeet Kune Do and kenesiology, become a philosopher and, most importantly, kick royal (your highness-like) ass. There are no punches pulled: literally. There are tales of people hurt from Lee’s strikes, which is all too believable due to the utter ferocity of each and every movement in Lee’s arsenal. The film could consist of merely the man’s fists (hence the title of the film) and it would still be one of the most brutal kung fu films of it’s age–definately a predessessor to Sonny Chiba’s The Streetfighter. I suppose that I need a negative here, and the drawback is quite blaring: Lee’s acting. In terms of character, Li and Yen hold more dramatic weight, while Lee is simply brute force in all things: dialogue, movement, expressions, etc. He’s the equivalent to a case of energy drinks spiked with Jack Daniels. For pure entertainment, my money’s on Fist of Fury (not Fists, get it straight). The winner and still champion: Mr. Lee! It’s like comparing Ali to Tyson and Holyfield. They’re all great regardles of their similarities and differences, yet there’s only one original.
*On a side note, the Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection DVD set can be found for as little as $10 at most stores. Although it does not include Enter the Dragon, Fist and Fists of Fury are worth the price of admission alone. Do yourself a favor: find it. Grab it. Rock it.