Usually, the sports films about boxing or kickboxing or MMA or any other kinds of sports played in the ring/cage have the preparation/build-up process before their obligatory big showdown scene. Main characters are introduced in the beginning, and we get to know about them as their reasons to fight are presented or revealed through their drama. There is always that good old gym montage sequence where they sweat a lot as accompanied by dynamic soundtrack, and, yes, we will get excitement and following payoff in the end.
South Korean sports melodrama film “Fists of Legend” has enough weight and energy to endure these genre conventions, but it enters the ring too early, and it clumsily kicks and punches with little preparation for basic storytelling or character establishment. Out of curiosity, I checked my watch, and I found that 5 or 6 matches had been already played out on the screen. While they are technically admirable, they had already bludgeoned my nerve to exhaustion, and I think the same thing can be said about the story; it seems to be so punch-drunk that it rambles on lots of many subjects without going deeper into them during its 150 minutes.
Because I am not much of a sports fan, I do not know whether there is a reality show on S Korean TV like the one depicted in the movie, but I must say the show, named “Fists of Legend”, was pretty unpleasant to watch in the movie. They introduce the middle aged guys who have some experience with fighting in one way or another in their past, and they put them individually in the match with a professional MMA player to see whether they can go through at least one round. I really felt sorry for these old guys while disgusted by the show, but, as you know, the people in these days are willing to appear on TV for money and short-term fame even if they are to be put into misery and humiliation broadcast on live.
The show is run by its ambitious producer Hong Gyoo-min(Lee Yo-won), who always speaks her lines with the sensibility of machine gun and the frigidity of wooden sculpture. While searching for other suitable players for her ongoing show, she focuses on Im Deok-gyoo(Hwang Jeong-min), who was once a promising boxer during his high school years but now is just a plain widower running his shabby noodle restaurant. He is not interested much in Gyoo-min’s offer, but, because of his hard economic situation, he eventually reconsiders his decision and enters the ring again.
Although being past his prime, he still has energy and skill for defense and attack, so he quickly becomes a media sensation as he keeps winning matches. He does not care about this newly gained fame, but his noodle restaurant business is boosted because of his popularity, and it seems it may provide him the chance to reconnect with his teenage daughter Soo-bin(Ji Woo), who usually goes back and forth between being sullen and being shrill because, well, she has problems.
Meanwhile, Deok-gyoo encounters Sang-hoon(Yoo Joon-sang) and Jae-seok(Yoon Je-moon), his old high school friends who also come to participate in the show for different reasons. Through several flashbacks, we see their rough high school days when they were bonded with each other, and we are also introduced to several other characters who indirectly or directly push them into the big matches during the second half of the story.
The movie tries to show and talk about many things, but none of them particularly sticks to the wall. Through the view of Sang-hoon, who works for a despicable CEO bully who was his high school ‘friend’, you may have some looks on the unpleasant aspect of South Korean society, but this part only exists for increasing Sang-hoon’s desperation and it is nothing more that. Gyoo-min looks like the main villain of the story, but the movie does not criticize her show much except throwing cheap shots through expendable comic characters, and the story does not seem to know what to do with her except supplying Lee Yo-won with those flat, lousy lines to be delivered.
The three main actors nobly struggle with their underdeveloped roles, and their bodies and movements really show how much they prepared before entering the ring/cage unlike the movie itself. This is not the most interesting performance from Hwang Jeong-min, but he is likable enough to hold my attention for a while. Yoon Joon-sang plays his character with the pathos which will come close to many ordinary company men in South Korea, and I sort of believed in his character as much as Hwang’s character. Yoon Je-moon, who impressed me with his comic performance in “Dangerously Excited”(2011) in last year, is stuck with a thankless functional role, but he looks good in the ring none the less.
The rest of the cast is pretty much wasted in their one-dimensional characters. The young actors playing the younger versions of three main characters are convincing, but their story is not that interesting because it is another typical violent adolescence story with predictable turns. I sincerely want to believe Lee Yo-won’s bad performance is not entirely her fault, and I do not like how the movie blatantly manipulates Ji Woo’s teenage character for pumping out the emotions from the audiences.
If you only look for the excitement from the matches, you will be certainly not disappointed. With the help from the stunt/fight choreographer Jeong Doo-hong, one of the most valuable assets of South Korean film, the movie provides several well-made match scenes, and, despite quick-cutting and busy camera work, the sweaty physical feelings inside the ring/cage are palpable enough to make me wince several times.
“Fists of Legend” has good things like that, but it does not build enough momentum to grip my attention, and its ending is too anti-climactic compared to lots of punches and kicks thrown during more than 2 hours. Compared to the better films like “Warrior”(2011), which really pushes its dramatic conflict to the end with satisfaction, the movie just walks out of the ring and feels pretty good about that. How nice it is, but shouldn’t it have done more preparation and exercise before it entered?