A group of young students become friends despite their constant fighting and competitive natures. Years later, the tight circle has weakened and each has their own circumstances keeping them apart. Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-min), formerly an amateur boxer, now runs a noodle shop. When his daughter is involved in an incident at her school, Lim becomes in need of some quick cash. Taking part in a televised amateur fighting show, he quickly becomes an instant celebrity with his formidable boxing skills and humble nature. As circumstances bring the former friends together in the ring, the past meets the present and the truth behind their drifting apart is revealed.
Featuring brawny and masculinely solid direction by Kang Woo-suk, the film plays more like part The Outsiders and part middle-aged drama punctuated with a number of hard-hitting brawls of varying types. There’s a decided nature to Korean dramas featuring middle-aged men. Thematic elements such as fraternity, fatherhood, honor, and the ever present sport film archetype of the desire for glory are all explored, at great length, in the film’s 153 minute running time. In fact, the film itself feels like two separate films with the divide between time periods. Though it does cleanly converge by the film’s final act, I’d say that the present day part is quite reliant on the the flashbacks into the past. The actors portraying the younger versions of the main cast are energetic and while still unpolished at first glance, give a commendable performance amidst some of Korea’s best actors today.
The fights come fast and furious with a few different styles: exaggerated fights and some great displays of tae kwon do kicking techniques used in ‘tall tale’ style fights; the modern MMA style ring brawls which make up the brunt of fights; and the huge group brawls which no one does better than Korean filmmakers. I figure there are at least a dozen different fights during the course of the film and the sheer variety and frequency of these scraps is terrific action.
The film looks and sounds good with the only real gripe I have being a generally light score which borrows heavily from a number of other fight films, most notably the Rocky series. Iconic tunes like Eye of the Tiger are re-appropriated in lamentable fashion into Korean hip-hop that is poorly conceived and takes you out of the film a bit. While the score itself is average at best, it does highlight the shifting tones accurately though without any real memorability.
In the end, Fists of Legend is a thoroughly engaging though bloated action drama. It’s absolutely great action scenes and the coupling of human melodrama may be divisive amongst many viewers, but rarely does a film these days, especially a tournament style martial arts film, so successfully pair motivation with plot. While the subject matter does do a good job of fully fleshing out the characters, there are also too many scenes of filler which would have benefited the film on the editing room floor.
You may enjoy this film if you enjoyed: Unbeatable, Friend, City of Violence, and Beat
Special Thanks to CJ Entertainment for providing a viewing copy!