I love martial arts films. As I have continually reiterated, hammering it into your head as it were, I am the genre buff of the Death Squad and I enjoy a veritable international food court of entries. The Hong stuff of yesteryear is bugnuts and Sonny Chiba rocked the hell out of Japan’s Streetfighter series. And if you haven’t seen a Thai martial arts flick yet, what in blue blazes are you waiting for? Go out and rent Ong-Bak, The Protector, Chocolate, and Born to Fight right Mao. But I had yet to see anything come out of Vietnam in the way of…..well, anything at all now that I think of it. So The Legend is Alive, by that virtue alone, muscled its way to the upper echelons of my Fantastic Fest must-see list.
The Legend is Alive is the story of a mentally disabled boy living in a school for martial arts run by his mother. He has it rough growing up, as you can imagine, and is actually asked to leave the schooling system after his third attempt at completing the third grade. From that point on, his only teacher is his mother; kung-fu his only subject. When he reaches adulthood, he sets off on a quest to America to meet his estranged father whom it was revealed is an international film star. As he strikes out on his own, he ardently adheres to his mother’s credo: fighting is bad and should only be a last resort for the sake of self-defense. But when his new-found girl gets kidnapped by human trafficking syndicate, his oath to her is tested.
The Legend is Alive is a bad film. It is boring and uninspired from start to finish. To say that it has pacing problems is to say Niagara Falls is wet. It takes its sweet time establishing ad nauseum things that are either A) uninteresting or B) completely inconsequential to the plot. A good example would be a scene wherein our hero is mistaken for a man who has just robbed a jewelry store. The police haul him in and he pleads with them not to take him to the crazy house which in essence makes sense because it refers back to something his mother had said earlier in the film. Despite the fact that the sergeant emphatically tells him that he has no intention of doing such, the next scene involves our hero shouting at an officer who is trying to move him to a different waiting room again protesting, “I don’t want to go to the crazy house!” If you want to be forgiving toward the film and justify this within the character, the fact is that nothing that happens in this mistaken identity plot point has anything to do with the film itself. It doesn’t progress the plot nor does it help us to understand anything we’ve seen up to that point. So not only is it frustratingly cyclical for an audience, it serves no purpose but to illustrate poor writing.
The main character being a mentally-challenged kung-fu master should be reminiscent of the film Chocolate (if you’ve seen it or are just insanely clairvoyant). But the mental disability of the character in The Legend is Alive is way overplayed. With Chocolate, the little girl’s disability didn’t keep her from being endearing or playing to her objectives. Veteran actor Dustin Nguyen struggles to find the balance between playing the limitations of the character and just generally limiting his performance. It seems phony at best and condescending at its worst. I especially hated that the character kept affirming “I may be slow, but I’m not stupid.” So he’s mentally competent enough to recognize he is handicapped but not enough to remember words someone spoke directly to him not ten seconds before?
Despite all these problems, at least it’s a martial arts film so the fight sequences made it worth watching, right? Right? Not even a little bit. I mentioned all the international flavors of the genre I had previously beheld and their respective traits, and again this was the first Vietnamese title I had seen. I hope it is not indicative of all Vietnamese martial arts films because The Legend is Alive managed to make one with little to no actual fight sequences. Basically this film is a drama about a young, mentally challenged boy’s relationship with his mother and how it later affects his ability to take down the prostitution business in Vietnam. If it were being sold as a drama and I were to judge it solely on that aspect it would definitely….still have sucked. But this is being marketed as a martial arts film and as such should not skimp on the fights. When we are privy to the few moments of combat, Nguyen displays no real talent and barely wins contests with even the most novice of henchmen.
Add to this mess a strange plot point about human remains appearing as Tinkerbell’s fairy dust and you’ve pretty much got the gist of this film. We are looking at a film that tries to exist as both a drama and a martial arts film that succeeds at neither. As a drama it is goofy and phony, and as a martial arts film it is duller than conjugating Latin verbs. If you are an aficionado of either genre, avoid this movie.
The Upside: It provides an opportunity to see a martial arts film from a country you may not have seen one from
The Downside: After watching it, you still will have not seen a Vietnamese martial arts film
On the Side: Dustin Nguyen used to be on 21 Jump Street.