Fists of Legend: Film Review

CJ Entertainment America
Redemption is a long time coming in this labored example of extreme male bonding.

Middle-aged brawlers on a reality TV show battle for big prize money in South Korean director Kang Woo-suk’s latest drama.

Apparently their high school years are just as formative for South Koreans as Americans, with rivalries and grudges sometimes lasting decades before they’re forgiven or resolved. Filmmaker Kang Woo-suk, who’s a well-known auteur at home but mostly made his mark in the US with 2004’s Silmido, mines these lingering resentments for some mildly provocative drama in his newest release. With a 2½-hour runtime and a dauntingly shaky narrative premise, theatrical response is likely to verge on weak to lukewarm at best. In a first, the film opens in South Korea concurrent with its major-market US launch.

Kang’s conviction that international audiences will sympathize with the contemporary personal challenges of unrepentant, borderline ludicrous former high school bullies and wanna-be gangsters appears wide of the mark, while a lack of standout stylistic traits that would distinguish the film’s fight scenes from dozens of more accessible real-life sporting events seems at odds with audience expectations.

Ms. Hong (Lee Yo-won), the 30-ish originator and producer of the mixed martial arts reality TV fight series “Legendary Punch” (promoted as “the greatest fight show on Earth”) has the unenviable task of assembling a tawdry lineup of onetime high school bullies, gangbangers and assorted lowlifes to battle each other in the ring 20 years later for a weekly $20,000 purse. Lim (Hwang Jung-min), a former amateur boxer -- now a humble, widowed noodle shop-owner -- gets snared by her calculated come-ons and persuaded to compete, presumably because he needs the money to subsidize his poorly patronized restaurant. The business also doubles as the apartment he shares with his sulky high-school age daughter, whom he parents with marginal effectiveness.

Whatever might be said of Hong’s overweeningly cynical approach to producing the show, she’s an ace researcher, managing to pair Lim in his first bout with erstwhile high school rival and small time gangster Shin (Yoon Jea-moon), a pudgy bundle of misdirected aggression. Lim’s spare boxing style handily nets him the week’s prize money when he goes up against the flailing Shin, but revelations about their shared past after 25 years of estrangement are almost more painful than the beating Shin takes in the ring.

After Lim improbably wins his first two fights – and $40,000 in prize money – ratings-obsessed Hong strong-arms his long-ago classmate and corporate employee Lee (Yu Jun-sang) into challenging Lim by threatening to expose his company director’s bad behavior. Although Lee wins the next round, Hong isn’t finished with the old school rivals yet, squeezing one last round of macho posturing from the trio and a group of other finalists in a live-TV slugfest titled “Match of Legends,” offering $200,000 in winnings.

Kang alternates the principal plotline with overlong flashbacks of the men’s school days, replaying some of their “legendary” brawls and their escalating rivalry, which eventually results in a truce that's torn apart by a key, character-defining event. 

The film’s leads are actually more impressive in the ring than in depictions of their daily lives, considering that they’re middle-aged actors trained as athletes specifically for Kang’s production. Fight sequences choreographed by Jung Doo-hong, whose work was recently showcased in the Korean thriller The Berlin File, are fairly realistic, even if they don’t display much breadth of mixed martial arts style. Otherwise, performances are mostly characterized by either youthful bravado or midlife melodrama, leaving scant opportunity for nuance. 

The fault lies principally with screenwriter Jang Min-suk’s bloated script (based on the web-based comic “Legendary Fist”) – an unnecessary overindulgence that’s likely to taint word of mouth and discourage moviegoers. Striving for an epic tone, Kang’s film might have been better served if he had taken the opportunity to trim repetitive fight scenes, story points and character beats, rather than padding them out.

The filmmakers’ overreaching attempt to assuage middle-aged male angst and instill some vigor in flagging egos with a fictional reality fight show appears almost unintentionally comical at times -- and all the more implausible when treated straightforwardly. Kang is fully up to the task, however, with a clean, fluid approach to directing the film that tends to gloss over its shortcomings. Editor Ko Im-pyo keeps the fight scenes popping while composer Cho Young-wook bludgeons them home with a grandiose score, along with repeated renditions of Survivors' "Eye of the Tiger." 

Opens: April 12 (CJ Entertainment)

Production company: Cinema Service, Miracle Films

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

Director: Kang Woo-suk

Screenwriter: Jang Min-suk

Producers: Jung Sun-young, Sohn Jeong-woo

Executive Producer: Jeong Tae-sung

Director of photography:Kim Yong-heung

Production designers: Zho Sung-won, Lee Tae-hoon

Costume designer: Yoon Mi-ra

Music: Cho Young-wook

Editor: Ko Im-pyo

No rating, 153 minutes