Trying to do a serious review of a movie like True Legend is like trying to do a serious review of a porno. I could wax on numerous aspects at length, but at some point you’ll just want to stop me and ask, “But how is the fucking?” Or in this case, “how is the fighting?” So let’s not dick around here. We’ve all got shit to do. The martial arts set pieces and choreography in True Legend range from pretty cool to kickass, without ever quite reaching holy shit territory. The movie itself is jumbled and incompetently structured, but I can’t imagine anyone interested in seeing the film will care much. Who complains about the story in a porno?
Though, of course, there needs to be a story. And ours concerns Su Can (Vincent Zhao, most notable for replacing Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China series). Su is the most badass warrior in the Emperor’s army, and as a reward the Emperor wants to make Su the governor of a province. Su humbly turns the offer down, wishing to return home to marry Ying (Zhou Xun), the adopted sister his farther took in after he was forced to murder her evil farther long ago when her father went nuts mastering the Five Venom Fists style. Ying also has a brother, Yuan (Andy On), who harbors a deep hatred for Su and his father. With Su out of the picture Yuan is offered the governorship. We jump forward in time: Su runs a martial arts school and has a son with Ying. None of them have seen Yuan since the prologue, but that all changes when Yuan pays them a visit. Now a powerful governor, Yuan has also mastered the Five Venom Fists, and is looking for payback on Su’s father. Some bad shit goes down, and Su must spirit quest his way to mastering wushu — which he does with the help, in parts, from the God of Wushu (Jay Chou) and the healing powers of herbalist and wine maker Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh).
True Legend marks the directorial return of legendary martial arts director and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. For those unfamiliar with Yuen, he came up in the late-70’s directing early Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung hits like Drunken Master and Magnificent Butcher. In 1994 he choreographed Fist of Legend, Jet Li’s remake of Bruce Lee’s First of Fury. According to the Wachowski Bros, this was the film that inspired them to hire Yuen to choreograph The Matrix. The monster success and influence of that film, as well as Yuen’s work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, launched him into the stratosphere as a choreographer. I mention this largely because I overheard someone after the press screening saying they thought Yuen should “have stayed” a choreography. He hasn’t directed a movie for about fifteen years, so I certainly can’t fault anyone for not being up on his resume, but I just want it to be known that Yuen was a director for nearly two decades before he found uber-success as just a choreographer. That said, I’d otherwise agree with that random person’s sentiment — everything that isn’t fighting in True Legend is pretty messy.
The acting is all in that typically bipolar style, where everyone seems to have two basic modes: inanely chipper or crushingly morose. This isn’t really a critique. That is stylistically conventional with the genre. Asians love their melodrama. (Although, they didn’t love this film; hailed as China’s first 3D movie, it was an expensive bomb over there.) For the most part the acting is all par for the course. But I had a hard time getting into Vincent Zhao. I’m not really sure what his “thing” is. Jackie Chan is a clown. Jet Li has his neo-Bruce Lee intense seriousness, minus Lee’s hint of impishness. Chow Yun Fat is American cool. Tony Ja, uh, loves elephants. Vincent Zhao is just some guy. He’s not serious, or funny. He’s sort of endearingly nice, I guess, but that’s not the most enthralling character trait for a hero in a martial arts epic. Despite all the great fighting and some pretty funny scenes involving the character’s questionable sanity, Su isn’t a particularly cheer-worthy hero. Vincent Zhao isn’t bad. He doesn’t threaten to sink the film at any point. But when a film is struggling through its between-fight moments, this is where a Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee is required. In classic Chan films I enjoy his general goofiness nearly as much as his stunt/fight prowess. I can’t imagine anyone looking at a film’s credits and saying, “Oh, sweet, Vincent Zhao is in this!”
Performance-wise the notable standout is Andy On as the villainous Yuan (not to be confused with our director, Yuen). Yuan is a fun character. Over the years he’s had metal sewn into his flesh, so that he’s effectively wearing an armored vest at all times. He gets his Five Venom Fists strength by sticking his arms into a box full of poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions (seems like I’m missing two more creatures, but that’s all I counted) and allowing them to fill his veins with their deadly venom. This allows Yuan to infect his opponents and often kill them within seconds from a single blow. His motivations are also the best dramatic aspects of the otherwise silly story. He’s not out for power (he already has it) and his desire for revenge isn’t that villainous (Su’s father did kill his father, after all), but he wants Ying back in his life and away from Su. And that’s not happening. When he winds up with Su and Ying’s son, he frankly becomes incredibly pathetic, telling the boy that he can never leave because Yuan can’t stand to be alone. I like badass villains who are super pathetic inside.
My biggest criticism of this film is related to the story structure. Our central conflict – Su trying to regain/perfect his wushu skillz so he can rescue his son from Yuan – is what it is. It’s silly and fairly unbelievable most of the time, featuring an alcoholism subplot that both feels out of nowhere and is weirdly addressed, but it serves its purpose of giving Yuen excuses to stage fun fight scenes. Then this story climaxes and resolves itself in a fitting and satisfactory manner. Then there is 40 minutes more movie. Actually, it isn’t even more movie, so much as it is a completely different movie. Basically the first movie ends, then we get a short film sequel. We switch location from the country to the big city, which made me realize the film was set much closer to the present than I had assumed. We get a whole new cast of side characters. A new conflict. A new villain. A new arc. And most bizarre of all, we get a new hero. It is still Vincent Zhao playing the same character, but now he’s referred to as Beggar So and he’s a fall down depressed drunk. Beggar So must learn the Drunken Fighting style (the solution to all alcohol problems!), which will allow him to dominate in True Legend 2.0‘s new climax — a melee fight being staged in an arena.
Now that you have proper warning, this second part may not bother you as much as it bothered me. I literally was grabbing my phone and other belongings to leave the screening when the first part ended, assuming it was the ending, when suddenly the film cut to a new location and shit kept unfolding. When I realized this wasn’t an epilogue, that the movie had rebooted, I was annoyed. Emotionally I had finished with the movie, so I never quite got back into things. Though, I have to admit, the arena fight second-climax was a lot of fun. One of my favorite Asian action movie conventions is their love of pitting our tiny Asian hero against some gigantic white guy (oh, the analytical essay that could be written on that). Beggar So goes up against a whole team of giant white dudes, working for David Carradine (in one of his many posthumous roles), in a totally pointless role as a fight manager named Anton. The whole sequence is well-staged and excitingly executed, and featured a lively performance by the frighteningly large Australian stunt man, Conan Stevens, who will become exponentially more famous in the nerd community as his character Gregor Clegane ‘The Mountain That Rides’ slowly gets expanded on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
All the fight choreography is top-notch, although mostly what we’ve come to expect from Yuen at this point. Nothing really jumped out to me as iconic, necessarily. The most memorable bit was actually just a gag: when a character worried about Su’s sanity follows him to watch his training with the God of Wushu and finds him alone in a field punching himself in the face and falling on rocks.
I saw the film in 2D, so I have no idea if the 3D is any good. A lot of the fights were staged oddly for 2D, it seemed to me, so that may be a reason to drop an extra few $ for the glasses. All-in-all, an unspectacular but entirely worthwhile martial arts movie. If you rarely see kickfests like this, I wouldn’t bother. There are plenty of classics out there begging for your attention on DVD. For those who like the genre, you’ll at least have a decent time.