Western audiences may be familiar with the work of Yuen Woo-ping through his fight choreography in movies like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and The Forbidden Kingdom. Ping has had a long career in Hong Kong as a director and actor, but hasn’t helmed a feature film since 1996’s Tai Chi Chun. He returns to the director’s chair with the big-budget spectacle, True Legend.
Su Can (Vincent Zhao) is a highly respected general in the Imperial Army and has just rescued a provincial prince from a band of mountain marauders. As thanks, the prince promises Su Can a position as governor, which he declines. Su Can recommends his adopted brother, Yuan Lie (Andy On), who reluctantly accepts in an effort to step out from under his shadow. Su Can retires from the military and returns home to raise a family with his wife, Ying (Zhou Xun), who is also Yuan’s younger sister.
As it turns out, Su’s father, Su Wan-kun (Bryan Leung), was forced to kill Yuan’s father after the latter went on a murderous rampage after mastering the deadly Five Venom Fists. Five years pass and Su Can’s happy life is shattered when Yuan arrives hell bent on revenge. Yuan has sewn body armor to his flesh and perfected the Five Venom Fists, a style that poisons the bloodstream of your opponent. Yuan kills Su Wan-kung, severely beats Su Can, and throws him down a waterfall. Ying dives in after her husband and both appear to be lost. A disturbed Yuan takes Su’s son Feng as his own.
Ying and Su Can have survived and make their way to the mountains where they are rescued by Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh), whose knowledge of herbs cures Su Can of the poison in his body. Spurred out of depression by his wife, Su Can renews his training of wu shu in order to rescue his son. Along the way he counters a mysterious Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and the mystical God of Wu Shu (Jay Chou), but are they real or a hallucination?
True Legend featured two fight scenes post-converted to 3D when it was initially released in China. Most theaters chose to screen the 2D version. Either way, the film was considered a box office flop, pulling in under $7 million (American) on a budget of $20 million. Part of this was likely due to the scattershot script by Christine To (Fearless). The movie skims over the relationship between the adopted brothers. We never get a sense of what their lives were like growing up together. Thus, when Yuan gives in to the dark side there is absolutely no emotional resonance. True Legend abruptly grinds to a halt during the monotonous second act in which Su Can rehabilitates. After the saggy middle section, you’d think the climatic showdown would bring the movie to its logical conclusion. Instead, the third act revolves around a disheveled Su Can living as a beggar until he is forced into battle against a team of foreign fighters (including former wrestlers Sylvester Terkay, Jon Heidenreich & Luther Reigns) managed by the late-David Carradine. This is the usual heroic Chinese master defying all odds to defeat the white devils story. The ending feels like a rushed sequel as if Yuen Woo-ping decided to amalgamate two different movies into one.
True Legend also utilizes a lot more computer generated effects than the typical Chinese production. It’s a shame though as the green screen work is subpar and almost laughable. Much of the actual locations and sets used in the picture are far more convincing. One fight sequence finds the combatants precariously facing off above roaring rapids. Despite wires and safety harnesses, there was still a danger of someone falling in and being swept away. Yuen Woo-ping’s flair for creative fight scenes is on full display here as well as in another set piece where Su Can and Yuan claw at each other down a deep well. The clash between Su Can and the foreigners is also thrilling as Yuen Woo-ping blended drunken boxing with modern break dancing moves.
For the most part, the acting is fine though slightly over-the-top. Michelle Yeoh makes a brief appearance and it almost seems like a waste not to have her involved in any of the action. Long time martial arts fans will be pleased to see Gordon Liu (36th Chamber of Shaolin) as the wise Old Sage, a role similar to the one he took on as Pei Mei in Kill Bill. Unfortunately, he too is only in a handful of scenes while the miscast Jay Chou (The Green Hornet) gets a lion’s share of the scenes in the second act.
Trivia Note: This isn’t the first time Yuen Woo-ping has dealt with the character of Su Can aka Beggar So. Donnie Yen played the folk hero in Yuen’s Heroes Among Heroes. Yuen’s father, Yuen Siu-tien, played the role in three films: Dance of the Drunk Mantis, Story of Drunken Master, and Drunken Master3 with Jackie Chan.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is incredibly detailed and rich with colors coming in strong.
The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track with the original Mandarin language with optional English subtitles.
The Blu-Ray includes five featurettes presented in standard definition. They are: Drunken Fist Master (3:54), a look at how the story was put together; The Militia’s Fortress (6:05), a look at the construction and design of the mountain fortress in the film’s opening sequence; Thousand Buddha Cliff (3:55), a quickie peek at the practical effects and CGI used to make Su Can’s training ground; Capturing Classical China (3:26) is a look at the locations used in the production; and Choreographed Drunkeness (6:39), about the making of the film’s fight scenes, particularly the final drunken boxing match.
Also included is a Storyboard to Scene comparison, a music video for the song “Axis of Evil” by The Shadow Bureau, and the film’s international trailer.
Film Value: 6
The disjointed story bothered critics more than it did me. The main criticisms I had with True Legend are the derivative plot, bland characters, and overly melodramatic tone. Despite these quibbles, True Legend features plenty of stylish and exciting fight scenes that have become trademarks of Yuen Woo-ping. It doesn’t match up to some of his best works like Tai Chi Master or Iron Monkey, but it’s worth a rent for the kung fu aficionado.