Chen Zhen (Jet Li) is attending class in Kyoto University when some Japanese karate students from the Black Dragon Clan burst in and attempt to force him out because he is Chinese. Mitsuko Yamada (Shinobu Nakayama), one of Chen's female classmates who has a crush on him, along with Chen's professor and other students, speak up for him. The thugs turn violent but Chen easily defeats them using a variety of controlled Chin Na techniques. The Japanese thugs' sensei, Funakochi Fumio (Yasuaki Kurata), who is also Mitsuko's uncle, arrives to take control of the situation and apologizes for his students' behavior. Fumio is impressed by Chen's skill and converses with him, and Chen learns that his master Huo Yuanjia has died after losing in a match against a Japanese martial artist. Chen is distraught after hearing the bad news and he leaves for Shanghai immediately.
Chen returns to Jingwu School and sees that his old friend — his master's son Huo Ting'en (Chin Siu-ho) — has become the new master of the school. The next day, Chen goes to the Japanese dojo to challenge Ryoichi Akutagawa (Jackson Liu), the Japanese fighter who allegedly defeated Huo Yuanjia. Akutagawa's students attempt to force Chen out with violence, but Chen defeats them all with ease. Akutagawa arrives on the scene and honorably accepts Chen's challenge. Chen defeats Akutagawa easily and concludes that Akutagawa is not capable of defeating his master, after which he suspects foul play in Huo Yuanjia's death. Chen has Huo's corpse exhumed for an autopsy against the wishes of Huo Ting'en and Jingwu's members. The coroner reveals that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned and weakened before his match against Akutagawa. Over the next few days, word of Chen's victory against Akutagawa spreads and Chen becomes a local celebrity in Shanghai. Jingwu's students begin to look up to Chen as their new instructor, which incurs the jealousy of Huo Ting'en. Huo remains silent and seeks comfort in a brothel, where he becomes romantically involved with a prostitute Rose (Ada Choi).
Meanwhile, Akutagawa confronts General Gō Fujita (Billy Chow) of the Imperial Japanese Army after realizing that his match result with Huo Yuanjia was pre-meditated by Fujita, which he considers dishonorable. After a heated argument, Fujita kills Akutagawa brutally in front of the shocked Japanese ambassador (Toshimichi Takahashi), but places the blame for this on Chen Zhen. Akutagawa's enraged students attack Jingwu School, culminating in a fight that is eventually stopped by the local police. Chen is arrested and placed on trial for allegedly murdering Akutagawa. Several "witnesses" provide false and conflicting accounts of the murder, but the court refuses to accept testimony from any Chinese defense witnesses on the grounds of "bias" towards Chen. Mitsuko arrives and testifies that Chen is innocent because he spent the night with her, and the court accepts her false testimony because she is a Japanese. Chen is exonerated, but his apparent relationship with Mitsuko ruins his reputation, as the Chinese view it as an act of treachery. Huo Ting'en and the senior Jingwu members demand that Chen either leave Mitsuko or leave the school, and Huo uses the opportunity to settle his personal vendetta against Chen by challenging Chen to a fight. Chen defeats Huo eventually with much reluctance but chooses to leave with Mitsuko. Huo Ting'en is humiliated by his defeat and gives up his position as master of Jingwu before leaving to join his lover. Jingwu's members eventually discover Huo's relationship with her and reprimand him. Huo learns his lesson and returns to Jingwu.
Chen and Mitsuko faces hostility from the locals and are forced to find accommodation in an abandoned hut near Huo Yuanjia's grave. At the same time, Fumio arrives from Japan as requested by Fujita, to get rid of Chen. Fumio engages Chen in a fair blindfolded fight, which ends with Fumio winning, but he calls it a draw, acknowledging that if Chen can learn to adapt to his opponent, he will be unstoppable. Fumio leaves after warning Chen about Fujita's ill intentions and killing skills. Days later, Huo Ting'en visits Chen and apologizes for his earlier behavior, saying that Jingwu School will accept Chen and Mitsuko's relationship now. Huo teaches Chen the Mizong Fist that night while Mitsuko leaves secretly, leaving behind a message for Chen that she will wait for him in Japan.
The next day, Chen and Huo Ting'en confront Fujita at his dojo, where Fujita exposes a traitor from Jingwu, who played a role in Huo Yuanjia's death, and shoots him in order to atone for planning Huo's death. Huo Ting'en then fights Fujita, who appears to be incredibly strong and resilient, and Huo suffers grave injuries. Chen engages Fujita himself in a long and exhausting fight, and eventually defeats him. Just as Chen and Huo are about to leave, the enraged Fujita comes after them with a katana, and Chen is forced to kill Fujita. Armed Japanese soldiers then surround them and prepare to open fire. The Japanese ambassador (who is a pacifist against Japanese militarism) arrives and orders the soldiers to stand down. He agrees with Chen's actions as he has been aware that Fujita is a madman, but also warns them that the Japanese government will use Fujita's death as an excuse to start a war with China, unless the Chinese can account for Fujita's death by executing the murderer. Chen expresses his willingness to accept the blame for Fujita's death in order to prevent war, earning the ambassador's further admiration. Instead of ordering Chen's death, the ambassador stages a fake execution and substitutes the dead Jingwu's traitor's body for Chen's, while Chen escapes and leaves Shanghai secretly.Jet Li as Chen Zhen
Chin Siu-ho as Huo Ting-en
Yasuaki Kurata as Fumio Funakochi
Shinobu Nakayama as Mitsuko Yamada
Billy Chau as General Fujita (Not Frank Fujita.)
Jackson Lou as Ryōichi Akutagawa (as Lou Hsueh-hsien)
Paul Chun as Uncle Nong Jinsun (as Paul Chiang)
Toshimichi Takahashi as Japanese ambassador
Yuen Cheung-yan as Captain Police Inspector Jie
Ada Choi as Xiao-hong / Su-lan / Rose
Wong San as Uncle Kan - Jingwu cook
Wallis Pang as Jingwu student
Lee Man-biu as Biu
Shaun Britton as English gentleman at dock
Tai Wooh-dang as Ngai
Kam Kong Chow (extra)
Gary Mak as Lun, a Jingwu student
Kenji Tanigaki as Japanese fighter
Fist of Legend inspired the Wachowskis to hire choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for the fight scenes in The Matrix. The style of fighting in the two films bears some resemblance.
In 1996, an unofficial sequel titled Fists of Legends 2: Iron Bodyguards was released starring Jet Le (not Jet Li).
Later films have also been influenced by Fist of Legend. Hitman also has a scene involving him using a belt as a weapon as seen previously. The more realistic and less wire-driven fight choreography seen in Kiss of the Dragon was a result of fan criticism to Corey Yuen's choreography in Romeo Must Die and preference for the style seen in Fist of Legend.
In 2006, Jet Li played his character's teacher, Huo Yuanjia, in Fearless.
In 2010, Gordon Chan and Andrew Lau produced a continuation of this film named Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen with Donnie Yen as Chen Zhen in his thirties.
Though Fist of Legend is widely considered one of Li's best films, during the downturn period of the Hong Kong film industry, its HK $14,785,382 box office gross was considered a disappointment. By comparison, Li's Fong Sai-yuk grossed over HK $30 million, and Fong Sai-yuk II grossed HK $23 million. However, its overall box office from other countries was good.
The English-dubbed U.S. release by Miramax and Buena Vista Distribution contains four specific mistranslations that drastically alter the meaning of the film as a whole.
- Before Chen leaves Japan, Mitsuko asks him if he hates the Japanese. In the U.S. version he replies, "I don't hate." In the Hong Kong version he replies, "I don't know."
- In the U.S. version of the scene where Chen fights Fumio, Fumio asks him what the most effective way to defeat an enemy is. Chen replies that the most effective way is to focus one's energy and strike, and Fumio agrees with him. In the Hong Kong version, they begin by discussing their match. Chen says that the purpose of martial arts is to defeat an enemy. Fumio says, "No, you're wrong. The best way to defeat your enemy is to use a gun. Martial arts is about personal development."
- Prior to the final fight sequence in the U.S. version, Chen and Huo face Fujita who holds up a sign reading Dongya Bingfu (東亞病夫) and he tells them that the sign says, "Jingwu is closed". The Chinese characters are commonly translated to "Sick men of the East" and is used as a famous reference to Fist of Fury. The subtitles in the Hong Kong version translate the sign correctly.
- At the end in the U.S. version, Chen's driver asks him if he will go to be with Mitsuko. Chen responds, "If I no longer have a country, at least I can still be with the woman I love." His response in the Hong Kong version is, "Which area is most affected by Japanese invasion?" The driver says, "Tungshan" and he says, "We'll go to Tungshan then."
With regard to footage, this version deletes the final moments of students training and contains a brand new set of opening (animated) and closing credits in English, abandoning the previous ones completely.
Compared to the Hong Kong version, the 106 minute Mandarin-dubbed Taiwanese version contains the following footage:
- An extension to the scene where Fujita gives a harsh lecture to several, prior to his order to spy on certain Japanese individuals.
- An extension of the scene with Chen after bowing to his master's shrine where Liu Zhensheng then hands over a suitcase to Chen and the latter proceeds to leave. Prior to following him, Mitsuko also respectfully bows.
- An entire scene where Hill Hung is looking for Huo Ting'en at a brothel, only to find him smoking opium with a prostitute.
- An entire scene where Hill Hung brings tea to Huo Ting'en, the night prior to the final match.
- An extension of Fumio talking with the ambassador, prior to the former winning the Chess game.
- After the final fight ends, a very small extension sees the Japanese soldiers pause for a moment prior to entering the Dojo.
In the Mandarin soundtracks of the film, there is background music when Chen fights Huo. However, in the Cantonese soundtrack, the music only plays after Chen performs a Capoeira-style kick later on in the fight.
The Hong Kong version in return, has the following footage:
- A reaction shot of the cook in the kitchen (followed by a shot from Huo Yuanjia's shrine) after Uncle Nong dispatches students to search for Huo Ting'en.
- A few seconds of Chen Zhen feigning death to Fujita.
- After the credits finish, we see the crew waving to the camera.
Both Hong Kong and Taiwanese version have slightly different end credits.
In 1997, the first DVD was released by Ritek in Taiwan, which fans later reported to be an "uncut" version. This has been a widely held misconception - whilst this version does carry some more footage (as a Taiwanese version), it is in turn missing a few moments that the Hong Kong version has.
On 15 February 2000, Miramax issued a DVD of this film in the U.S. (later in the U.K. too by Hollywood Pictures on VHS first, then DVD later on 29 March 2002). Whilst it featured better visual quality than any other release (some agree even to this day), it immediately caused an uproar with the Hong Kong Cinema fan community because it contained only a new English dub/score with alterations to the original dialogue and no original Cantonese option - a defect shared with many of their Hong Kong-acquired titles (not to mention the edits).
On 20 March 2002, the first official DVD of the Hong Kong version with a Cantonese soundtrack was issued by HKVideo in France. However, it contained no English subtitles. One notable difference to other versions carrying a Chinese/Taiwanese version is that it doesn't contain the ending text describing the aftermath of Jingwu School, but is otherwise the same and, bar a few missing frames, uncut.
A lesser-known DVD was issued on 25 March 2005 by Japanese distributor Maxam which contains the Hong Kong version (and its ending text) in complete form, but no English subtitles.
A R1 2-DVD "Ultimate Edition" was finally released on 9 September 2008 from The Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty label in America, which features many extras and the original Cantonese soundtrack with English subtitles, marking the first official DVD release to do so. This version was also released in Australia(Region 4), in single disk.
However, this is still visually the previous US version with the Cantonese soundtrack edited to fit its visuals. Matters are worsened when the subtitles revert to dubtitles towards the end - relying on the previous incorrectly transcribed "Sick Men Of Asia" sign and story-changing ending (see above) from Miramax's English dub.
German-issued DVDs from distributor 'New Age 21' (released 12 November 2008) and 'HMH' (released 20 November 2008) were released in an uncut state and contain a Cantonese soundtrack with English subtitles.
Other uncut English-subtitled releases of the Hong Kong Cantonese-language versions (now OOP) include the US 'Tai Seng' VHS (released 20 October 2000), the Australian 'Chinatown Video' VHS, the U.K. 'Made In Hong Kong' VHS (released 1 October 1999), the Mei Ah VCD, VHS and LD.
The Malaysian 'Speedy' VCD also contains a similar version, but enforces cuts to some scenes for violence:
- Fujita kneeing Ryōichi Akutagawa's back.
- Huo Ting'en hitting his head on a window during the finale.
- Chen Zhen hitting his head on a window during the finale.
The Spanish 'Manga Films' DVD entitled "El Mejor Luchador" (released 24 October 2001) and a slightly edited Indian 'Diskovery' VCD entitled "The Hitter: Fist Of The Legend" contain an English-dubbed version intended for export to English-speaking territories. Strangely, this version has aired occasionally on US TV with a Miramax ident, instead of their own produced version.
Cine Asia released a Blu-ray version 22 March 2010 in the UK and on 20 April 2010 in USA.