At a college in Kyoto in his engineering class, Chen Zhen (Jet Li) finds proceedings interrupted by members of The Black Dragon Clan who demand that all Chinese students leave, as they believe those from that country have no place in Japan. Chen sees them brimming with violence, so defuses the situation by beating up any who approach him until the clan leader Mr Funakoshi (Yasuaki Kurata) arrives and tells his followers to cool off. He also brings bad news for Chen: his mentor back in Shanghai has died during a competition - he will have to return home to pay his respects...
And possibly turn detective to find out who the true culprit was, in this, a variation on the story that Bruce Lee brought to the screen in Fist of Fury over twenty years before. While that was all about raising China's status in relation to Japan, as well as providing classic fight scenes in the process, here a more evenhanded style was adopted as in this version Chen Zhen gets a Japanese girlfriend in the shape of Mitsuko (Shinobu Nakayama) as if to say, yeah, there was rivalry and more between our two countries at one time, but no hard feelings, eh? Actually, here the themes were less about nationalism and more about making up for absent father figures.
That is made plain when our hero reaches Shanghai to find his old martial arts school floundering in the wake of their loss, so he makes it his responsibility to pull them back together, essentially filling the mentor role for the teacher they have lost. This doesn't go down well with everyone, as the son of the dead man, Ting-An (Siu-hou Chin) is understandably put out at this turn of events and the stage is set for a battle between them which Chen naturally wins. The students are like children here, rudderless when they don't have anyone to tell them what to do, which is unfortunate when the Black Dragons are determined to show off their supposed superior skills and beat them.
What the real villainy here is exposed as is not the martial arts combatants themselves, as the philosophy of self-improvement is what we are meant to take away from that, but the military: the main baddie here is General Fujita (Billy Chow) who is pointedly dressed in uniform throughout to underline his status in this society. When Chen uncovers the plot that poisoned the master, turning Quincy at one bit when the doctor complains that he is no pathologist, so Chen will have to do the cutting of the corpse, the leaders of the Black Dragons are actually affronted because it reflects badly on them that they were not able to win without cheating. Their military overlords have few such qualms, however.
There's a neat balance struck between attacking the invaders' rule and acknowledging that not all Japanese were bad, not something Bruce Lee and company ever concerned themselves with in their original, but the presence of Mitsuko goes some way to humanising the stoic Chen Zhen: she joins him about halfway through the film to provide an alibi in court, and they end up getting married in the face of anti-Japanese feelings around them. They couple have to live out in the middle of nowhere eventually, yet while these emotions are respected by the script, there's little poetry in Fist of Legend. A sequence near the end where Chen and Funakoshi have a showdown looks to have an artful breeze blowing the leaves around, but this an excuse for the two of them to blindfold themselves for a setpiece fight, expertly choreographed like the others by Yuen Woo-ping. If anything, the film goes too much for nobility, with little humour and veering too far to the morose, but Li's excellent abilities make it clear why some believe it to be among his best. Music by Stephen Edwards and Joseph Koo.