Color, 1993, 96 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping
Starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Siu Ho, Fennie Yuen
Ronin Flix (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1), Dragon Dynasty (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Color, 1994, 103 mins. 22 secs.
Directed by Gordon Chan
Starring Jet Li, Shinobu Nakayama, Siu-Ho Chin, Billy Chow, Yasuaki Kurata
Ronin Flix (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1), Dragon Dynasty (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

When he wasn't busy making Tai Chi Masterclassic entries in the Once Upon a Time in China series throughout the '90s,martial arts star Tai Chi MasterJet Li remained very busy with standalone action films that remain among his most popular titles. Two of them, 1993's Tai Chi Master (a.k.a. Twin Warriors or the more grammatically correct Tai-Chi Master) and 1994's Fist of Legend, have long enjoyed a following among Western audiences thanks to their acquisition by Miramax, whose initial English-dubbed versions were staggered among plenty of other imports including all those bastardized Jackie Chan classics. Both films were issued on DVD and Blu-ray by The Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty line, and in 2022, Ronix Flix rereleased them as standalone titles as well as a combo pack featuring some refinements noted below.

The opulent Tai Chi Master occupies a special place in history as the first pairing of Li and Michelle Yeoh, who would work together again in Hollywood on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (and sort of in Fearless). However, this is mainly a Li vehicle in which he stars as Zhang Junbao, a Shaolin Temple monk who ends up getting expelled from his martial arts studies during a violent altercation and false accusation in a tournament involving his blood brother, Tienbo (Ho). Their experiences in the outside world put them in the crosshairs of a corrupt governor and cross their paths with Siu-lin (Yeoh), whose husband has deserted her for another woman. Soon they end up on opposite sides between the governmental soldiers and a brewing rebellion.

Spanning decades in the lives of its characters (including drastic hairstyle changes), Tai Chi Master is another top-notch martial arts film from director Tai Chi MasterYuen Woo-ping, whose output includes early Jackie Chan classics like Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow as well as Iron Monkey and The Magnificent Butcher. Like most Hong Kong Tai Chi Master'90s films, the Golden Harvest production eschews the panoramic widescreen spectacle of its predecessors in favor of a tighter, more intimate aesthetic relying on tight close-ups and faster action cutting. It's a style that always suited Li well, and it's no wonder this was another feather in his cap at the height of his local popularity. The version released in theaters and on VHS by Miramax's Dimension arm was edited, not surprisingly, but the intact cut was eventually restored for U.S. audiences in 2008 for a Dragon Dynasty (followed by a Blu-ray upgrade). That edition featured lossy Dolby Digital Cantonese 5.1 and 2.0 tracks plus the English 5.1 dub, with optional English-translated or English SDH subtitles. There was also a surprising amount of source damage left in the transfer, which otherwise looked okay. Extras on that release include a solo audio commentary by the now long-disgraced Bey Logan, plus the trailer and several worthwhile featurettes: "Nemesis" (20m18s) with actor Chin Siu-ho talking about '90s martial arts training and working with Li; "The Birthplace of Tai Chi" (14m58s), a lively video tour of Chen Village; and "Meditations on the Master" (13m42s) "Twin Warriors" (14m34s) with critic Elvis Mitchell and another now-shunned figure, Brett Ratner, discussing the work of hugely influential work of Woo-Ping and the impact of the Hong Kong work by Li and Yeoh. The 2022 Ronin Flix Blu-ray retains all of the video extras (and understandably drops the commentary), while adding a nice incentive with drastically superior DTS-HD MA options for the Cantonese 5.1 and 2.0 and English tracks. The scan itself is the same, though the egregious damage present in the earlier release has been removed for a smoother viewing experience. It's also matted at the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 versus the slightly opened-up 1.78:1 seen on the earlier disc.

One of Fist of LegendLi's most widely-seen Hong Kong films that doesn't have "Once Upon" in the title, Fist of Legend is more or less a remake of the Fist of Legendpopular 1972 Bruce Lee vehicle Fist of Fury and brings back Woo-Ping for fight choreography, with directorial reins handed over to Gordon Chan (Royal Tramp, Fight Back to School). The reliable storyline set in 1937 Kyoto and Japanese-occupied Shanghai charts the training and path to justice for young martial arts student Chen Zhen (Li), who is informed while studying in Japan that his master has been killed by a Japanese tournament opponent. Upon returning to his school, Chen quickly deduces that the death was no accident but part of a premeditated murder plot with ties to the Imperial Japanese Army. Attempted frame-ups, showdowns, and power struggles ensue.

Though it doesn't reinvent the narrative wheel, Fist of Legend is essential viewing as a showcase for Li's striking fighting style and magnetic screen presence. The semi-whodunit aspect is handled well in the opening stretch, paving the way for a grand climax that easily delivers the goods. It's tempting to compare this to the original film throughout, but the very different '90s aesthetic and fighting styles help it stand on its own two feet. This film ended up being reworked far more heavily by Miramax when it was acquired, including a replacement music score and some slight trims (in addition to the longer one released in Taiwan, which wasn't the Fist of Legendfinal edit -- not an uncommon practice with Hong Kong titles). The Cantonese-language version wasn't available in the U.S. until the Fist of Legendfilm shifted Dragon Dynasty for Blu-ray and DVD, again with a Logan commentary and numerous robust featurettes: "The Man Behind the Legend" (35m36s) with Chan covering his action films and particularly his work with Li; "Brother in Arms" (23m18s) with "kung fu impresario" Chin Siu-ho; "The Way of the Warrior" (29m41s) with Kurata Yasuaki; "The School of Hard Knocks" (26m32s), an entertaining and sometimes really wild peek at a class at the Kurata Action School for potential film fighters; an appraisal of the film (9m35s) with Mitchell and Ratner, which is sometimes insightful but also weirdly condescending to the Bruce Lee original; and a 5m8s reel of SD deleted scenes from the Taiwanese cut including a curious scene involving opium smoking at a brothel. The Ronix Flix reissue is a similar story here, porting over all the video extras and ditching the commentary while fixing some of the obvious flaws in the existing master (with the same adjusted framing). It also upgrades all of the audio options (Cantonese 2.0 mono, Mandarin 2.0 mono, and English 5.1) to DTS-HD MA with a significant gain in quality. This one is especially valuable for all those tracks since, as mentioned above, the soundtrack is radically different (and to these ears, really inferior) for the English dub. The familiar international credits are featured here complete with the Papyrus font that later gained pop culture infamy, and in a major selling point for the upgrade, the English subtitles here are correctly translated from the Cantonese track versus the seriously lacking dubtitles on the Dragon Dynasty, which drastically altered the meaning of numerous lines of dialogue.

Ronix Flix

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Dragon Dynasty

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Reviewed on December 23, 2022.