My apprehension going into watch Fists of Legend was almost palpable. Billed
as a mixed martial arts melodrama that follows three middle-aged men take part in a televised fighting competition called ‘Legendary Punch’, the basis of which is that they used to go to school together and had reputations based on their fierce fighting skills, it’s difficult to figure out exactly who is the movies target demographic.
By Paul Bramhall
Furthermore, the MMA style that sporting competitions like UFC have made so popular has yet to really successfully transfer onto the big screen. While watching two sweaty men withering around on top of each other in an actual real match is exciting and dangerous, as you have no idea what’s going to happen, watching it in a movie takes away that immediacy, stripping it of any tension. Lacking the rhythm and flow of old school kung-fu or the kinetic energy of kickboxing, MMA in comparison comes across as stifled and almost boring, as can be witnessed in any of the countless straight-to-DVD Tapout movies.
Still, while Fists of Legend seems like a questionable proposition from a story standpoint, the talent behind the production can’t be denied. Helmed by reliable commercial director Kang Woo-seok (‘Public Enemy / 공공의 적’, ‘Silmido / 실미도’), the three characters themselves are played by the always enjoyable Hwang Jeong-min (‘The New World / 신세계’, ‘The Unjust / 부당거래’), Yoon Je-moon (‘Boomerang Family / 고령화가족’ – also showing at the Film Festival!), & Hang Song-soo favourite Yoo Joong-sang (‘The Day He Arrives / 북촌 방향’, ‘Nobody’s Daughter Haewon / 누구의 딸도 아닌 해원’).
Thankfully the caliber both behind and in front of the camera come together well. The opening switches between scenes from the characters youth of them single handedly taking on whole gangs with nothing but their fists and feet, to the present day TV show which has producer (played by Lee Yo-won) pitting them 25 years later, complete with beer belly, against a seasoned MMA fighter to test their legendary status. From the get go the situation is entirely ludicrous, however Woo-seok plays things straight faced, backed up by performers who are obviously giving it their all. As a result, buying into the whole concept of kids who were famous in school for fighting seeing if they’ve still got it a quarter of a decade later, somehow becomes quite easy to buy into.
Hwang Jeong-min is quickly established as the main character to root for, once a promising boxer, a cruel twist of fate stole him of his dream and he’s now a noodle shop owner which hardly has any customers, trying to support his teenage daughter after his wife has passed away. It’s safe to say his character ticks every requirement of being in a Korean melodrama, and then some. Je-moon’s character has spent most of his life as a small time gangster working under the areas big crime boss, while Joon-sang made a clean break from his troubled high school brawling days, and now works in an office in which he strives to climb the corporate ladder under a less than pleasant CEO.
Essentially Yo-won’s producer makes it her mission to bring these three characters, who haven’t seen each other since their high school days, together again to face off against each other on the TV show. There is a subtle underlying theme in the movie of how the media manipulates any given situation for its own betterment. Yo-won goes about playing the men's honest motives off against each other to influence them all to agreeing to take part, and it’s perhaps a telling sign that she becomes one of the only characters to have a decent amount of screen time that doesn’t get some kind of redemptive arc, at the end of the move she’s still the manipulative producer she is at the start.
While the movie earns a lot of good will with its stellar performances and good mix of regular fight action, the question does come up of if you can have too much of a good thing. While the principal story of getting the three guys together for an MMA match seems relatively straightforward, Fists of Legend clocks in at a whopping 155 minutes, which may put off even the most patient viewer. Most of the huge run time is explained through the fact Woo-seok makes the decision to run a parallel story of the guy’s time in high school, so we’re presented with several extended flashback scenes of the three characters brawling days (their young versions are played by Park Jeong-min, Park Doo-sik, & Goo Won respectively).
While these scenes provide some welcome background to the characters, as well as some of the movies biggest brawling scenes, trimming some of them down would definitely have been beneficial. Woo-seok is also at his most playful in these scenes, having the trio regularly refer to themselves as the characters from the Hong Kong classic ‘A Better Tomorrow’, making a reference to his own movie ‘Silmido’, and he also recycles the plot from his movie ‘Public Enemy Returns / 강철중: 공공의 적 1-1’, of a gangster hiring disadvantaged teenagers to do his dirty work.
By the time the final 30 minutes roll around, which are entirely taken up by MMA bouts in a special tournament which offers big prize money, viewers will either be ready to lap it up or suffering from serious fatigue. Luckily, the fights incorporate various plot points being tied up in the process, which makes them equally satisfying from a plot standpoint as it will be for those who just want to watch some grueling fight action. Special mention should go to the movies action director Jeong Doo-hong, here having his craftsmanship on show for a second time in the festival after 'The Berlin File / 베를린'. He creates some great mass brawling scenes, during which you just know people got hurt, and succeeds in the unenviable job of actually making the MMA fights themselves appear exciting and tense.
With the US churning out an endless stream of dull and uninspired MMA movies, Fists of Legend achieves the rare feat of combining manly melodrama with equally manly fight action, and while it may outstay its welcome for some, by the time the credits roll it’s hard to deny that the experience wasn’t a satisfying one.
By Paul Bramhall