Film Review: ‘Fists of Legend’

A mixed-martial-arts competition sets in motion this maximalist male melodrama from Korean helmer Kang Woo-suk

Bloated but energetic, entertaining but interminable, tortured but strangely satisfying, “Fists of Legend” spends two-and-a-half hours unraveling the knotty saga of three middle-aged fighters, their shared dark past and their rocky road to redemption. A mixed-martial-arts competition sets in motion this maximalist male melodrama from Korean blockbuster helmer Kang Woo-suk (“Silmido,” the “Public Enemy” trilogy), which careens wildly from brutal bouts to father-daughter angst to reality-TV satire to violent high-school flashbacks, like a wrestler forever teetering on the brink of exhaustion as he shows you one crazy move after another.

The rare Korean production to open Stateside (April 12) almost concurrently with its local release (April 10), this CJ Entertainment pic should pin down some moviegoers Stateside, despite its imposing running time, before a quick transition to home-format play. Given its long, rambling story arc and a hefty ensemble of characters seen in past and present incarnations, “Fists of Legend” may well prove more watchable as a smallscreen item; while individual scenes are well shaped and play effectively enough, they’re barely held together by an inelegant structure that piles on narrative excess at every turn.

A rapid-fire prologue introduces “Legendary Punch,” a gimmicky reality-competition skein that pits once-famous, now-shlumpy street fighters against younger, well-trained professionals, with predictably one-sided results. The show’s cutthroat producer (Lee Yo-won) attempts to recruit Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-min), a former boxer who had once hoped to compete in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Now he’s a mild-mannered restaurateur with a troubled teenage daughter and a stack of debts high enough to make him reluctantly consider competing for the show’s $20,000 prize.

Although he hasn’t thrown a punch in years, Lim’s still got it; he is the first “Legendary” contestant to defeat a heavily favored opponent, and becomes a series regular as the show’s popularity skyrockets. Yet this storyline turns out to be merely one thread among many. Lengthy stretches of the film are devoted to flashbacks from Lim’s dark street-fighter days, which return to haunt him in the form of his old high-school buddies, Lee Sang-hoon (Yu Jun-sang) and Shin Jae-suk (Yoon Jea-moon), both now drawn into the show’s ratings-driven orbit.

Sentimental, visceral, cheesy, cathartic and exhausting, with Cho Young-wook’s pushy score drowned out by the even more insistent refrain of “Eye of the Tiger,” “Fists of Legend” is almost too much entertainment for one movie. Given that the film borrows its title from Gordon Chan’s influential 1994 hit, and the dialogue includes unsubtle references to John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow,” its swaggering ambition could well be taken as a declaration of sorts — mainstream Korean cinema’s extravagant answer to Hong Kong’s martial-arts heyday.

While “Fists” may fall short of that mark, it’s an experience that, on the whole, hits many more right notes than wrong ones. Occasionally the film even pauses to make a salient point or two about the downside of fame; the dangers of youthful bullying; and the unthinking culture of violence, not limited to male perpetrators, fomented at least in part by certain types of lowbrow entertainment.

Longtime producer-helmer Kang elicits consistently strong performances from his cast. Hwang’s gentle-eyed demeanor lends tremendous rooting interest to the tough but not invincible Lim, and he’s well matched by Yu as the cooler, more reserved but similarly formidable Sang-hoon, a corporate ladder-climber whose career is decidedly at odds with his rough-and-rowdy past. Ko Im-pyo’s editing is by turns impressive and incoherent, investing the fight sequences with terrific energy but struggling to weave the various strands together.

Fists of Legend
Junseolui jumeok
(South Korea)

Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., April 11, 2013. Running time: 153 MIN.

A CJ Entertainment release and presentation, in association with Cinema Service, M Corset, Trophy Entertainment, Asia Investment, Seoul Action School, of a Cinema Service, Miracle Films production. Produced by Jung Sun-young, Sohn Jeong-woo. Executive producer, Jeong Tae-sung. Co-producer, Kim Bong-suh.

Directed by Kang Woo-suk. Screenplay, Jang Min-suk, based on the original webtoon by Lee Jong-kyu, Lee Yoon-kyun. Camera (color, widescreen), Kim Yong-heung; editor, Ko Im-pyo; music, Cho Young-wook; production designers, Zho Sung-won, Lee Tae-hoon; costume designer, Yoon Mi-ra; sound (Dolby Digital), Oh Se-jin; sound designer, Kim Suk-won; visual effects, Digital Studio 2L; associate producer, Park Chul-soo.

Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Yu Jun-sang, Lee Yo-won, Yoon Jea-moon, Jung Woong-in, Sung Ji-roo.