Fists of Legend (2013) Movie Review

Fists of Legend (2013) Movie Image

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.

Hwang Jung-Min in Fists of Legend (2013) Movie Image

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.

Hwang Jung-Min in Fists of Legend (2013) Movie Image

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
Hwang Jung-Min
Yo-won Lee
Jun-Sang Yoo
Je-mun Yun

Buy Fists of Legend on DVD or Blu-ray



About James Mudge

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James is a Scottish writer based in London. He is one of BeyondHollywood.com’s oldest tenured movie reviewer, specializing in all forms of cinema from the Asian continent, as well as the angst-strewn world of independent cinema and the plasma-filled caverns of the horror genre. James can be reached at jamesmudge (at) btinternet.com, preferably with offers of free drinks.

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  • darrenjh

    I feel the same way about this as I did about that Tom Hardy film. How can you make a film about dudes facing hardship and then fighting for their livelihood, a social issue, and then finish it off with a final battle that glorifies the violence and stupidity that put them there in the first place? The MMA says something about us as a species, and I don’t think it is positive.

    • RM

      I haven’t seen this movie but if you’re saying it’s similar to the one tom hardy played in and basically saying that MMA is something “violent and stupid”, then I can only say that you have little to no knowledge of the sport. There is a LOT behind the violence. Yes, hitting people in the face, trying to break each other’s joints is violent, but there is a lot of technique behind it, which is part of the beauty to the people who know how to appreciate it.

      I’d seriously recommend you to take martial arts lessons for at least half a year and then you will finally appreciate what’s behind martial arts. Some people like training and never have to use the techniques they have learned and there are some others who like to see how well they can do against other people. If they’re getting paid for it, even better, right?

      • darrenjh

        I did Judo for many years. MMA is martial arts for those with their brains removed and is most likely riddled with steroid and amphetamine abusers. I realise there is technique but the sport still sucks. They’re was nothing particularly wrong with all forms of combat before. It is just a symptom of the lack of civility in society today. People would much rather seen arms broken and blood spatter than a display of a particular martial arts. MMA basicially ends in grappling, which is a boring as shit.

        • RM

          Well, you’ll always have people who aren’t disciplined enough to handle their power/technique once they’ve “mastered” it (eg. it’s much better to not use your martial arts to solve a problem than using it) and there will always be people who like to watch two people swinging at it, inflicting as much damage, blood and gore as possible. This has nothing to do with MMA, it’s seen with other martial arts as well, like boxing, kickboxing and muay thai, although I agree people don’t go to a Judo match for example, to spectate a violent fight.