An archetypal sports drama in which three high school friends must face the past while competing for a sizable cash prize, Fists of Legend spends the bulk of its running time developing characters and their intertwined backstories for maximum emotional effect. Such attention is rare and admirable in this kind of populist entertainment, but even if Gavin O’Connor’s sterling Warrior hadn’t beaten Kang woo-suk’s film to the punch two years earlier in illustrating how to transform potentially clichéd material into a rousing crowd-pleaser, Fists of Legend would still feel like a case of floundered opportunities. Performances aside, there’s little to distinguish this from its countless ilk, a legacy the soundtrack explicitly acknowledges by employing Rocky III’s anthem, “Eye of the Tiger,” not once, not twice, but five times. Despite ultimately using a modern rock/rap cover of the Survivor track in a bid for meta-textual commentary, Fists of Legend fails to elevate itself above mere legacy, wasting what might have otherwise been a nicely rendered bit of sly self-awareness.
The film’s title refers to a Korean mixed martial arts (MMA) reality show in which street-fighting legends compete for cash prizes. Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-win), Sang-hoon (Yu Jun-sang), and Jae-suk (Yoon jae-moon) were all physically talented in their youth, selected by an ambitious TV producer for both their fighting skills and the high potential for personal drama inside the ring. Deok-kyu has been humbled by life; his Olympic hopes dashed and his wife departed, he now runs a flailing noodle shop and takes heat from his belligerent mother-in-law. Sang-hoon and Jae-suk are both allotted respectively lamentable sob stories, and Fists of Legend is so generous in its characterizations that it’s easy to overlook the fact that its hot-topic drama (bullying, economic marginalization, etc.) amounts to little more than padded lip service. At a solid two-and-a-half hours, the film fails to justify the investment, dabbling in character study and fighting spectacle before giving way to an overwhelmingly anonymous aesthetic.