REVIEW: Ludicrous True Legend Doesn't Sustain Ingenuity
Watching True Legend, a wuxia film crossed with classic vaudeville, it's hard to figure out who's borrowing from whom anymore. The storybook set-up places us in the middle of the Qing dynasty, where a new warrior emerges "from the ashes of chaos." Soon that warrior is at the center of a battle that features camera and prop choreography that would make Busby Berkeley eat his porkpie hat, bloody spit-takes to shame all three Stooges, and a combination of sword work and breakdancing that could sell a studio on Breakin' 3: Up the Yangtze. When the late David Carradine shows up and the film suddenly enters a turn-of-the-century fight/jazz club, the cameo itself seems to have zig-zagged between Hong Kong, Hollywood, and back again before arriving on the screen.
Structured by extended set-ups between four key battles, True Legend is the story of Su Can (Man Cheuk Chiu), the warrior who just wants to go home and start a family and a martial arts school after serving his prince well. He turns down the offer to be a governor, bestowing the honor on Yuan (Andy On), a lesser warrior with a grudge against the family who took him in years earlier. Su's father, "the old master," killed Yuan's father when he "went too far with the Five Venom Fists," an evil warrior technique, and Yuan avenges his father's death at the first available opportunity, i.e. the next scene, which takes place several years later. Yuan's been dipping in the venom himself, as lonely governors do, and has stitched dark gold body armor directly into his flesh, a look presented in a spectacular, shirt-ripping reveal.
Yuan turns on Su as well, who further enraged the governor by marrying his sister Ying (Xun Zhou) and fathering a child. Su and Ying barely escape Yuan's five venom fists with their lives, leaving their young son behind. There begins a long, Rocky-like training interlude, wherein Su regains his strength and his confidence, lets his hair grow in, and accepts the ministrations of a light-footed mountain medicine woman played by Michelle Yeoh. Just as jealousy and revenge drove Yuan to acquire superhuman ass-kicking powers, in time Su becomes obsessed with his regimen, following wuxia gods into the forest for private battles, and causing Yeoh to warn him that over-training might cause him to go mad. Could this ludicrous, sword-clanging extravaganza really smuggle in a moral about moderation under its flesh-bonded breastplates?
Nah. But finding the path to functioning warrior-hood proves thematically challenging enough. The showdown with Yuan is years in the making, which gives the increasingly pasty governor time to reassemble his tear-away shirt -- it's a move so nice he does it twice -- and up the dosage of poison that spiders, snakes, and scorpions are supplying to his mitts. Su and Yuan's second face-off is pretty sweet, and features hand-to-hand grappling while both men are suspended in the neck of a well.
With almost an hour to go after Su's son is recovered, True Legend moves into its strangest section, where Su hits the skids, develops a drinking habit and loses his will to live. A serendipitous encounter with his old general (now the head of the Wusha Federation) precedes Su's accidental discovery of the "drunken fist" technique, a fatalistic fight style that leans into equilibrium weirdness instead of resisting it. It's a dazzling sequence, like watching Gene Kelly dance "drunk," or Meryl Streep playing a bad actor. At almost two hours, though, True Legend itself starts to feel a little woozy. Director Woo-ping Yuen stages exciting battles -- slo-mo, freeze frame, and much gravity-slaying enhance the mood and often majestic settings -- but the episodic structure wears thin before the last throat punch.