Grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly showed exploitation films. It is thought to stem from the defunct burlesque theaters on 42nd Street, New York, where “bump n’ grind” dancing and striptease used to be on the bill. In the 1960s these theaters were put to new use as venues for exploitation films, a trend which continued strongly throughout the 1970s in New York City and other urban centers, mainly in North America, but began a long decline during the 1980s with the advent of home video.
Exploitation film is an informal label which may be applied to any film which is generally considered to be low budget, and therefore apparently attempting to gain financial success by “exploiting” a current trend or a niche genre or a base desire for lurid subject matter. The term “exploitation” is common in film marketing for promotion or advertising in any type of film. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, or romance. An “exploitation film”, however, due to its low budget, relies more heavily than usual on “exploitation”. Very often, exploitation films are widely considered to be of low quality, and are generally “B movies”. Even so, they sometimes attract critical attention and cult followings. Some films which might readily be labeled as “exploitation films” have become trend setters and of historical importance in their own right, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968). Some films also might be advertised by the producers themselves as “exploitation films” in order to pique the interest of those who seek out films of this type.
If there’s one question posed by kung fu film fans every so often, it’s “What is Jet Li’s best film?” and it’s usually greeted with a cacophony of “FIST OF LEGEND…DUUUUUH!!” type responses. But is it Jet Li’s best film and, if it is, why is it? Well, one of the obvious answers is that it’s one hell of a remake. It takes Bruce Lee’s classic, “Fist of Fury” (a pretty fucking dangerous thing to do), and makes it something that isn’t a Bruce Lee film. It keeps the plot, the concepts and the ideas and yet it somehow reshapes it into a 90’s Jet Li film. It’s lighter…”fluffier” if you will. It’s not grim and angry like the original. This is “Genie in a Bottle” Christina…not “Durrrty” Christina.
Sadly, in 2014 the plot is a bit tiresome. We’ve seen the whole China versus Japan thing done eight million times. But that doesn’t really matter here. This film has the same themes we’ve seen, but it doesn’t really need them. Beyond the big “political statement,” it’s a far more intimate film focusing on martial arts culture and the fact that martial artists should always embrace adaptation. It also features Jet Li’s best haircut. It looks like it etched out of Onyx. The point of the film is…well, it’s amazing fights. I’m sure the filmmakers don’t actually agree with that statement but, as a fan of the genre, the film seems a lot more focused on the action than other similarly themed films. “Ip Man” for example. And it’s the fights that make this film the best (allegedly) Jet Li film. For once, it doesn’t have Jet spinning through the air and delivering kicks only seen in anime. He’s all punches and kicks here. It’s a rarity. A beautiful, beautiful rarity. It helps that Yuen Woo Ping is on choreography duty but then Yuen Woo Ping directed “Tai Chi Master” and that entire film feels like a butthole full of PCP. Here, Woo Ping tones it right down…and it’s incredible. For once we get to see Jet Li without the fancy Wushu kicks. We get to see him box and actually go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow with people. It’s not just a shitload of shakycam and someone standing on a bench that’s balanced on a log that’s balanced on a ladder that’s balanced on the shoulders of a villainous henchman who’s stood precariously on a thimble. "Fist of Legend" breaks the mold…of everyone. It says, "Hey, let’s fuck shit up" and it does it with aplomb.
Let’s go one step further and break down the fights…
They’re all so different. From the early brutality of the classroom fight to the obvious homage to Bruce Lee in the dojo that doesn’t really feel like that much of an homage, to both the mid-film fight against Chin Siu Ho and then the blindfold set of fisticuffs against Yasuaki Kurata. They’re all similar in style but each one has a little twist that makes them different from the last: limbs breaking, blindfolds, traditional kung fu against western boxing. It’s like a porno. Each scene essentially contains the same elements but they’re all a little different from the last. Then there’s the finale against Billy Chow. I’m not sure how tall Chow is exactly but, face to face with Jet, he looks like he’s 17 feet. He’s massive. The final fight looks like “Shadow of the Colossus.” I kept expecting Jet Li to whistle and shut “Agro!.” Chow is a beast and, for the first few minutes, it’s impossible to tell how Jet’s character, Chen Zhen, is actually going to beat him. And how does he beat him? He uses his motherfucking belt, that’s how. Just like your dad would defeat you back in the day. Jet Li is the KING OF DADS.
Some of the elements in “Fist of Legend” don’t really work. The weird love interest is…weird. Even the blindfold fight feels like it’s from a different film but, somehow, it all adds up to one hell of a viewing experience. It’s a tight little package of honor, respect, integrity, skill, brutality…and belts. It may not be my FAVORITE Jet Li film but it’s undoubtedly his best. It’s a remake that’s arguably better than the original. It doesn’t have the emotional weight of some of his other films…or the cheese of some of his more questionable projects. It toes that line between silly old school kung fu classic and new wave 90’s action. And that’s the point. The movie is actually a metaphor for its own themes! Put simply, Jet Li has never looked better. And he hasn’t looked better since. “Fist of Legend” is a no fuss beast of a film. It’s the film that potential fans should watch to get them into the genre. It’s a CLASSIC and utterly deserving of that title. It slots all its odd shaped pieces together and forms a picture worthy of the highest praise. It’s legendary…and fisty. It’s “Fist of Legend.” In fact, the only reason it won’t get an ‘A+’ is that it doesn’t include an old school training sequence. Jogging with weights on your ankles just doesn’t count.