REVIEW: True Legend (2010)

World-renown action director Yuen Woo-ping returns to film directing for the first time in 14 years to helm this wire-intensive kung fu drama centered on the life of Chinese folk hero Su Qi-er (aka Beggar Su Can). It’s his second attempt at telling the tale of Su Qi-er after helming the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA-inspired wire-fu film HEROES AMONG HEROES (aka FIST OF THE RED DRAGON). It stars veteran wushu TV series lead Vincent Zhao (THE MASTER OF TAI CHI) in a rambling, ultimately anticlimactic narrative that sees Qi-er go from celebrated Qing Dynasty general to a disheveled, drunken beggar after the lives of his family are upended by his revenge-seeking brother-in-law (Andy On). The film initially looks promising with a solid match-up between Zhao and On who both appear in top form. Yuen’s elaborate and high-intensity fight choreography adds value despite cheap-looking computer effects, awkward use of modern b-boy and professional wrestling moves in a period kung fu movie and overdependence on marionette-like wirework. Yet any gains made in the action department coupled with the welcome presence of former genre superstars Leung Ka-yan, Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and David Carradine in supporting roles are offset by a poorly constructed script filled with bland characterizations, annoying soap operatics and devolvement into ludicrously clichéd and underdeveloped East-versus-West conflict. TRUE LEGEND is a disappointment considering Yuen’s association with genre hits old and new ranging from DRUNKEN MASTER to FEARLESS. It suggests that either the aging master of action needs to leave film directing in other hands or find better material. Given his respectable helming track record highlighted by immensely entertaining classics like LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, IRON MONKEY and THE TAI-CHI MASTER I’m inclined to believe the latter.

Proving that Hong Kong filmmakers have gained ground at least in historical detail and aesthetics, TRUE LEGEND takes place in a richly decorated, finely shot and seemingly authentic Qing Dynasty-era setting with an appropriately demure classical Chinese score by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi (FEARLESS).

To Chi-long, who previously penned Ronny Yu’s FEARLESS, scripted this film as well but with less success. The major fault, aside from poorly developed characters, is that the main villain is dealt with by the end of the second act and the hero is left to flounder directionless for the remainder of the story until he has a final chance encounter with foreign fighters in a sequence that too closely mimics scenes in FEARLESS and IP MAN 2.

The film opens with a daring rescue of a warlord by General Su Qi-er and a contingent of highly trained warriors. Cung Le makes a barely noticeable appearance here as the chief villain. This sequence establishes the wuxia-flavored action that trades realism for CGI and wire-enhanced combat not unlike what has appeared in the likes of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE.

From there the shaky relationship between Su Qi-er and junior officer Yuan Lie (Andy On) is established as Qi-er retires to return home and wed Yuan Lie’s sister Yuan Ying (Zhou Xun). From here the film starts to look like a slightly more expensive and compressed version of a typical Chinese martial arts TV series as supporting characters played by elder martial arts stars are introduced along with a devious plot by Yuan Lie to get revenge on Su Qi-er and his father for the killing of his own father. Classic kung fu movie star Leung Ka-yan has a small, mostly non-fighting role here as Su Qi-er’s father.

This leads up to an initial confrontation between Su Qi-er and Yuan Lie on a very cool platform overhanging a large waterfall. While both men were wired and harnessed for much of the fighting, it was still a dangerous shoot because no green screen was used as the two fought precariously close to the edge. This is what Yuen Woo-ping excels at, using expert wirework to keep his leads fighting in a seemingly impossible live action setting. It recalls Yuen’s excellent set up in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON where he had Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi suspended on the tops of bamboo trees.

The sequence is also memorable as Yuan Lie first reveals chest armor that has been sown right onto his skin. Kudos to whoever thought that up because it’s something new in the genre, it looks great and provides Su Qi-er with an added challenge to overcome later on. It’s very much an update or extension of the traditional “iron shirt” style of internal kung fu presented in classics like EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and BORN INVINCIBLE and fits very well with Yuan Lie’s poisonous “Five Venom Fists” kung fu.

No kung fu movie is complete without a great villain with an equally great kung fu technique. This is one area where TRUE LEGEND is superior to the IP MAN films. Yuan Lie is molded from the old school classics that once played in grindhouse theaters and on cable TV in the 1980s. The character is pure evil and has a style that matches perfectly. He literally absorbs the poisons from snakes, spiders and scorpions into his body and is able to store it until he chooses to channel it into his attacks. So his opponents are not only struck with a conventional blow but are also left poisoned. The style sounds similar to the title of Chang Cheh’s popular kung fu classic THE FIVE VENOMS but its effect is more closely related to the Buddha’s Palm strike that appears in many Chinese kung fu and wuxia films including Yuen Woo-ping’s IRON MONKEY.

Andy On, a Chinese-American martial artist first discovered by Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark, is on fire in this role. Ever since his ill-fated debut in BLACK MASK 2, he’s suffered mostly bad action roles but this marks a new turn even though the film overall isn’t so hot. Andy On’s simmering, high-impact performance is the best thing going on in this movie. I only wish the rest of the movie was on par.

The second act is dominated by Su Qi-er’s highly unconventional training. This is where the film starts to fall apart. The suggested gist of the training is that Su Qi-er is being visited by Old Sage and the God of Wushu, two martial arts demi-gods in his head as he drunkenly throws himself around. The two masters are played by Gordon Liu, seemingly channeling his Pai Mei role from KILL BILL: VOLUME 2, and pop star Jay Chou who appears in out of place gaudy white and gold garb that would have fit right into a Chang Cheh Venoms Mob movie. We never learn who these figures are or why they’re helping Su Qi-er. It’s also never clear whether or not they’re really guiding his actions or are simply figments of his alcohol-induced hallucinations. As for the training itself, all Su Qi-er does is spar with the God of War (Chou). Unlike some of the training sequences in Yuen’s past films including DRUNKEN MASTER and THE TAI-CHI MASTER, there is no visual or oral explanation for how Su Qi-er is actually progressing as a martial artist. Great training sequences always find an interesting way of conveying what the hero is learning and how it will aid them in defeating their rivals. The best we get here is a brief suggestion that Su Qi-er is developing what looks like an Eagle or Tiger Claw technique to rend bark from a tree but this has nothing to do with the generic training he’s undergoing in his mind.

Jay Chou, who is making his Hollywood debut this year as Kato in THE GREET HORNET, actually looks decent in his fighting performance, both of them. In addition to his God of Wushu role, he appears later in the movie as the Drunken God, a drunken boxer who briefly matches fists with a homeless Su Qi-er. That said, with all of the screen fighters Yuen favors a lot of close shots, tight editing, wire pulls, and doubling during difficult b-boy style moves. Because Chou’s roles were minor and yet he was generally front and center while promoting the film, I get the impression that his main purpose in the movie was to boost box office sales since poor Vincent Zhao, once a rising wushu movie star in the 1990s, never gained anywhere near the popularity of Jet Li or Donnie Yen and remains largely unknown outside of his TV roles.

In spite of Vincent Zhao’s general lack of charisma, the underdeveloped training portion of the movie and the forgettable interactions between Su Qi-er, his wife and Michelle Yeoh as a reclusive Chinese herbalist tending to his wounds, the subsequent final match between Su Qi-er and Yuan Lie is excellent and forms the highpoint of the movie. It’s definitely one of the better post-1990s era martial arts match-ups seen in Hong Kong cinema to date. As a bonus, up-and-coming wushu starlet Jiang Luxia (COWEB) is joined by actor Will Liu (THE TREASURE HUNTER) in portraying Yuan Lie’s two fighting lieutenants. They provide a nice warm up for Su Qi-er as before the main battle.

Unfortunately, once the final match between Yuan Lie and Su Qi-er is completed, the movie completely loses its focus as Su Qi-er falls into despair over his wife’s death. At this point there is no nemesis or great villain to fight, nor any foreshadowing of conflict so after some routine homeless father-son drama the film puts Su Qi-er into a situation where he feels compelled to leap into the middle of a competitive arena match pitting several Western wrestlers against local Chinese fighters.

This is a far different take on the legend of Su Qi-er than Gordon Chan’s KING OF BEGGARS (1992), starring funnyman Stephen Chow. In that film, Su Qi-er starts out not even knowing kung fu and only after becoming a beggar does he rise up to become a martial arts hero.

Near the end the late David Carradine finally makes his brief appearance as the wrestlers’ manager. What an awful, late career performance for Carradine. Let me just say that Yuen Woo-ping can do many things well but direct an English-speaking actor he cannot and should not ever do again without more help.

As for the fight, it’s a forgettable rehash of many Chinese-versus-Caucasian battles that’s made only slightly more memorable by the odd inclusion of pro-wrestling and b-boy dance moves. Yuen made it clear during production that the fight choreography would include street dancing, basically “breaking,” similar to moves used by b-boy fighters in recent martial arts movies CHOCOLATE, CITY OF VIOLENCE and COWEB. Yuen himself pioneered the merger of breaking and kung fu in the films DRUNKEN TAI CHI and especially MISMATCHED COUPLES, both starring a young Donnie Yen. It worked in those two films because they were essentially nonsense kung fu comedies but because the tone of TRUE LEGEND is serious and the time is obviously set well before breaking or pro-wrestling existed, these moves look ridiculous. I can sort of see what Yuen was trying to do by creating a new b-boy style drunken fist technique but it just doesn’t work in this movie. It would have been awesome in a Stephen Chow comedy or contemporary actioner though. Also, it would have helped if the lead actor has more personality to match his flashy moves. Zhao hardly acts at all while fighting. Likewise, seeing Su Qi-er getting dropped in a piledriver and nailed with a flying elbow in a film set in the 1800s is equally ridiculous. Besides, we all know that pro-wrestling is fake. If we’re going to go into contemporary Western fighting why not use MMA moves instead?

All of this is made more absurd by the fact that the movie really ended about 30 minutes earlier. Why should the audience care about this fight? It’s meaningless. Su Qi-er suddenly becomes a champion of the Chinese people but not really because he’s only fighting to rescue his highly annoying son who first wandered into the ring. After hearing this kid squawking incessantly, I wanted to see one of the wrestlers knock him out instead of Su stepping in to drop some drunken b-boy moves on him.

By the end of the third act, what started out as a decent kung fu movie turns into a joke. Cartoonish martial arts action doesn’t work well without comedy or at least a well thought out story to back it up. TRUE LEGEND proves my theory that kung fu movies should rarely exceed 90 minutes in length unless you have something truly great on display. At just under two hours, with a third act that should have been completely scrapped, the film is an overlong disappointment that falls beneath Yuen Woo-ping’s potential as a filmmaker. I love that he keeps trying to innovate with his action choreography and there is certainly quality action to enjoy here but he still missed the mark this time.

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