Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fists of Legend: A Steel Cage High School Reunion

Like Steven Seagal in Under Siege, Lim Deok-kyu is a cook, not a fighter.  He once knew his way around a boxing ring, but those days are over, at least until a hard-charging producer recruits him for a mixed martial arts reality show.  Much to his surprise, he will grapple with some old friends in Kang Woo-suk’s Fists of Legend (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Lim’s boxing career ended on a sour note.  It was complicated, as we will learn in a series of flashbacks.  The middle-aged one-time high school legend tries to be a good single father to his daughter, but he is having trouble making ends meet with his noodle restaurant.  Reluctantly, he agrees to appear on Hong Gyu-min’s program pitting notable former school yard brawlers against each other.  Of course, Lim starts notching up victories, including an early “W” against his old chum Shin Jae-suk.

The teenaged Lim and Shin ruled over two high schools together with their running mates Lee Sang-hoon and Son Jin-ho.  Lim largely dropped out sight, while Shin became a small time gangster.  Lee resigned himself to a career as the well-heeled Son’s corporate yes-man, bitterly resenting the constant humiliations.  As they often do, events will conspire, forcing Lee onto the show to face Lim.  However, the champ quickly sours on his new found fame.  Nonetheless, he will be one of the fan favorites for the show’s tournament of champions.

Essentially, Fists combines the sensitive juvenile delinquent drama (like Green Fish for example) with a MMA smackdown.  Action director Jung Doo-hong’s fight scenes in both time frames are cinematic and convincingly brutal.  Evidently, actor Yu Jun-sang had to be rushed to the emergency room during filming, which is always a promising testimonial for an action film.

Hong Sang-soo admirers will probably be surprised to see the auteur’s regular surrogate in such an action driven role, but Yu clearly gave it his all.  As Lee, he is also quite strong on the dramatic end as well.  While Hwang Jung-min navigated plenty of mayhem in New World, his work as Lim is still an impressive shift of gears.  He totally nails the world-weary earnestness viewers demand from their Rocky figures.  As the Ringo of this Fab Four, Shin could have easily become a caricature, but Yoon Jea-moon invests him with surprising dignity and presence.  Of the quartet, only Jung Woong-in’s entitled Son is an underdeveloped stock figure.

The Rocky comparison is hardly accidental.  “Eye of the Tiger” is heard throughout the film and audiences are sure to take a strong rooting interest in Lim and his daughter.  However, screenwriter Jang Min-seok nimbly sidesteps the big climatic fight clich√©, with a smart, almost intimate finale. 

Nevertheless, Fists brings more pain than the average wuxia or gangster conflagration.  It is not for the overly sensitive, but MMA and boxing fans will feast on its steel cage beatdowns.  Recommended for fans of contemporary martial arts films with a hint of media criticism, Fists of Legend is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.