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Despite its familiar sounding title, “Fists of Legend” isn’t an old school martial arts epic, but a Korean MMA themed drama from director Kang Woo Suk. Kang is one of the country’s biggest blockbuster names, having helmed a long line of commercial and critical hits including the “Public Enemy” trilogy, “Silmido”, “Moss” and more, and so pretty much anything with his name attached is of interest. Making the film even more of a promising prospect is a fine cast headlined by Hwang Jung Min (“New World”), Yoo Jun Sang (“In Another Country”) and Yoon Je Moon (“Battlefield Heroes”) as three very manly men, childhood friends and rivals who face off against each other in the ring.
Hwang Jung Min plays Lim Deok Kyu, who back in his school days had high hopes of becoming an Olympic boxer, though who is now a struggling noodle shop owner with a troubled teen daughter(Ji Woo). Knowing of his boxing and his former status as a top street brawler, producer Kyu Min (actress Lee Yo Won, “Perfect Number”) persuades him to appear on her television show “Legendary Punch”, in which MMA stars take on everyday Joes for cash prizes. After Lim starts notching up victories and becomes a public hero, things get more complicated when two of his childhood friends, corporate worker Sang Hoon (Yoo Jun Sang) and shabby gangster Jae Saek (Yoon Jae Moon) are also signed up, bringing back memories of their violent and not always pleasant past.
Although it might sound fairly basic and straightforward, “Fists of Legend” is an incredibly busy and ambitious film, Kang Woo Suk seemingly having tried to cover as many bases as possible, from underdog sports story to “Friend”-style youth violence and bonding, with reality television satire comedy and plenty of macho melodrama in-between. Clocking in at a very lengthy two and a half hours, it’s a fairly bloated affair, Kang not always getting the pacing right, and it does go through several markedly unfocused periods, with the flashbacks to the past not being terribly well implemented. However, despite this, the film actually works very well, and Kang’s talent as a cynical and gritty storyteller does shine through, and “Fists of Legend” not only holds the interest but builds towards a conclusion that’s surprising and rewarding.
At the centre of the film is a depiction of Korean society as being ruled (and possibly ruined) by a culture of violence, seen here at every level, from school bullying through to corporate thuggery and financial threats, with most of its characters spending their time being forced to do things against their will or simply to survive. It’s notoriously difficult for a film to be critical of violence while at the same time serving up brutal violence for the purpose of entertainment, though Kang just about manages to pull it off, mainly since the film as a whole is a fairly dark affair and highly critical of Korean society in general. This extends to his characters as well, and where the film really impresses is in the way that none of the leads are completely likeable or decent men, being flawed and troubled in many ways.
With Kang getting great, powerful performances from all three of his male stars (the female characters in the film are relegated almost entirely to background concerns, Lee Yo Won in particular having very little to do), this results in an unexpected level of emotional depth, and though a lot of its melodrama is cheap in a sub-John Woo manner, the script emerges as being more than the sum of its various parts. Though dark, the film still has the feel of a glossy blockbuster in Kang’s usual style, and it looks good throughout, with strong visuals and aggressive editing. The fight scenes themselves are suitably bone crunching and vicious, whether the MMA bouts or the flashback street fights, and the film certainly packs in plenty of blood, sweat and grunting. Kang has always been a solid action director, and the set pieces here are well-choreographed and exciting, and serve the very useful purpose of injecting a little pace and spectacle when the film slows down.
While overlong and frankly exhausting, “Fists of Legend” is nevertheless another solid blockbuster from Kang Woo Suk, who again proves himself a master of the commercial form. Benefitting considerably from a deeply cynical streak and an unflinchingly critical eye, it’s very enjoyable in a rough and tumble sort of way, in particular for viewers fond of testosterone explosions.
Woo-Suk Kang (director) / Min-seok Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Woong-in Jung