Jet Li became a superstar in Asia after taking the lead in the hit Once Upon a Time in China films, epic martial arts adventures set at the turn of the century and featuring Li as the real-life healer and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung, transformed into a modest, soft-spoken scholar who unleashes his unworldly skills to battle evil.
When he left the franchise to become his own producer, he turned to another Chinese folk hero, this one with a reputation for being something of a scoundrel. In The Legend (1993), released around the world as Fong Sai Yuk, brings his quiet charm and graceful moves to a wily young man who would rather fight than study. It’s a made-to-order vehicle for Li, who adds Jackie Chan-style humor to his trademark balletic grace and soft-spoken presence. He’s no Jackie Chan, mind you, and Josephine Siao almost steals the picture as his rascally mom, at least until Li goes into action and becomes a revolutionary hero and one-man army. Director and famed action choreographer Corey Yuen Kwai (Lethal Weapon 4, X-Men, The Transporter) fills it with the flying wire work and slapstick set pieces that have become his specialty.
It was a hit and so a sequel was rushed out. The Legend 2 (1993), aka Fong Sai Yuk II, turns the young revolutionary into a 18th century secret agent to infiltrate a secret organization, woo the beautiful daughter of an evil governor (in a mad martial arts tournament that has suitors battle each other while scaling a flimsy bamboo tower), and then face the wrath of his jealous wife. It’s bright and energetic and treats the story as merely an excuse for eye-popping, magic-laced martial arts action. Li delivers on that account, but once again he’s upstaged by Siao, who plays his scrappy, fun-loving mother with the spirited zing of a clown princess. The corny, tongue-in-cheek comedy may be a little much for American audiences but the action is top rate and these films are available to experience with the original Cantonese soundtracks and English subtitles, which is preferable to the English dubbing.
To see how the clown prince of kung-fu himself does it, try The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), originally released at Drunken Master 2, starring Jackie Chan as young Wong Fei-hung. It’s a return to the role that helped make him a star, a response to the Once Upon a Time in China films, and his answer to Li’s attempt to muscle in on the comic action movie that Chan dominated. Comic mix-ups and misunderstandings land Wong in the middle of a plot by British smugglers stealing Chinese treasures and enslaving local workers in its iron foundry. Chan was forty when he returned to play the teenage martial arts rascal, almost a decade older than co-star Anita Mui (who plays his equally rascally stepmother). If he doesn’t necessarily look the part, he certainly has youthful energy to spare and the kind of daring you’ll never see in an American action film.
This was a product of the Hong Kong action movie industry at its height and the mad mix of slapstick comedy, energetic action and melodrama offers some of Chan’s finest fight scenes, a series of tightly choreographed, highly acrobatic skirmishes that build in intensity to the battle royal in the foundry where Wong dodges coal carts, parries sneak attacks, and crab walks through red hot coals while taking on a succession of comers. The end-credit outtakes show this last stunt to be the real thing. Wow.
It’s rated R for action violence, but it’s not explicit and there is no language or adult material. In Hong Kong, he was family entertainment.
This is presented in its American home video version with English dubbing and no option for original Chinese soundtrack. That’s disappointing, but apart from importing discs from Asia, there isn’t any better option.