Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2010 coverage, but with True Legend seeing its way into theaters this weekend, we’re seeing our way into re-running it. Don’t be afraid of exploring that Fantastic Fest link at the bottom.
Woo-ping Yuen has acted in several Hong Kong films, but he’s a legend in the world of martial arts cinema for his work behind the camera. As a director he’s responsible for Iron Monkey, Tai Chi Master, and more. As a fight choreographer he’s internationally renowned for his work on Kill Bill, Fearless, The Matrix, and more. The guy gets around.
And the sixty five year-old is still going strong as his latest film as director shows him uninterested in slowing down or staying conventional. True Legend features blistering action, fantasy sequences, and truly menacing villain. Unfortunately, it also opens with its best scene, features an immediately forgettable middle, and continues for about forty minutes after the movie “ends”…
The film opens with black-clad warriors scaling down into a cave system and sneaking up on the impending execution of their general. The intruders are spotted, and a full-on clash begins filled with swordplay, hand to hand fights, and arrows piercing through flesh. It’s wildly kinetic and features some of the film’s best action. Su (Man Cheuk Chiu) succeeds in rescuing the general and receives an offer to be governor, but his pseudo brother, Yuan (Andy On), has to settle for hand-me-downs when Su passes on the position. His plans instead include returning home and marrying Yuan’s hot sister, Ying (Xun Zhou). Cut to a few years later and Su has a son named Little Feng. Yuan comes visiting and in a rage he kills his own father and takes Su’s wife and child. Su tries to fight back but instead ends up in the fast-moving river with his still gorgeous wife.
At which point the movie goes downhill fast…
The duo are rescued by Michelle Yeoh and spend some time living with her and recovering from their brush with death. Yeoh is great, as always, but she disappears as quickly as she appeared and instead we’re subjected to almost thirty minutes of floating Asian wackiness with the arrival of Old Sage and the God of Wushu. The two men, both played by Jay Chou, become mentors/training partners for the browbeaten Su. “If my skills are weak,” he tells them, “what’s the point of living?” I don’t know, maybe your very cute wife and precocious little kid? This entire middle section is loaded with mediocre CGI, and while the fights here are well choreographed they’re marred by tonally inconsistent goofiness, digital effects, and an abundance of wire work. Emboldened by his sparring he heads out to rescue his son and battle Yuan, and the film builds to a rousing and brutal conclusion with some strong and impressive fighting.
Unfortunately, the movie keeps going for another forty minutes.
The third act basically becomes Ip Man or Fearless with Su finding his calling as defender of Asians against the imperialist white brutes. Add in the creation of Beggar Su, the original Drunken Fighter, alongside a gaggle of steroid users named Killer Anton’s Invincible Wrestlers, a sad and out of place David Carradine, and a ridiculous mix of pro wrestling and break dancing, and you have the makings of a film that has lost more than it’s way.
It’s a shame the movie goes so far off track because there are some solid touches throughout. That opening scene is a brilliant mix of setting, fight choreography, and editing, but it truly is the highlight in regard to the film’s set-pieces. Other small but interesting bits include Yuan’s armor which is literally sewn into his body… it’s both a cool idea and an effective visual effect. He also absorbs the venoms from snakes and spiders and then release the deadly power in his attacks. Both of these are small touches that deserved a home in a far better movie.