Directed by Yuen Woo-ping. Starring Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le. (2010, R, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 13, 2011
Indeed, there’s a true legend at work here, but unfortunately, the phrase is not descriptive of the film itself but rather its maker Yuen Woo-ping, the brilliant martial arts choreographer who is best known stateside for lending his talents to directors Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill’s two volumes), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix trilogy). True Legend is Yuen’s first directing effort in 14 years, and although his incredible ingenuity in crafting wirework fight sequences is on full display, the filmmaker also supplements these action illusions with CGI work that is much less convincing. Still, fight sequences staged on the precipice of a waterfall and along the inner sides of a well will set viewers’ hearts racing and demonstrate that Yuen hasn’t lost his creative spark. However, the plot of True Legend is a rote revenge story, which dismayingly ends in the second act, leaving the entire third act as something of an anticlimactic coda in which the hero Su Can (Zhao) becomes a depressed, drunken beggar until he masters the new martial art of Drunken Fist fighting. By that point, Su Can fights in a mixed-martial-arts arena that incongruously exists in the late 19th century during the latter decades of the Qing Dynasty (although the sequence does allow for a tasty cameo by Carradine as the Western promoter who stages these death matches). Likewise, Chinese film legends Michelle Yeoh and Gordon Liu show up in secondary roles that demand little of them. The real show is between Su Can and his adopted brother Yuan (On), who is a master of the Five Venom Fists, a battle technique that was the reason Yuan’s father was killed by Su Can’s father prior to the start of the film. After that, Su Can’s father raises Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou) as his own, and Su Can later marries Ying and has a child. Yuan’s anger has apparently festered in silence for years before he returns to his adopted home to seek revenge. In addition to the Five Venom Fists, Yuan has had armor sewn defiantly onto his chest, which is another of the film’s novel touches. Su Can and Ying escape Yuan’s barbarous attack and spend a long time recovering in the hideout of Yeoh’s friendly herbalist. While there, the physically weakened Su Can hones his fighting skills against the God of Wushu (Chou, Kato in The Green Hornet), who may only be a figment of his imagination. There is no question that Yuen Woo-ping is a master of his craft, but True Legend leaves doubt as to his mastery of the art of storytelling. See "The Stuff of Legend" for an interview with Yuen Woo-ping.