Judge Patrick Rogers is a seminal film critic.
Our review of True Legend (Blu-ray), published September 13th, 2011, is also available.
Yuen Woo-ping is a name that generates a lot of excitement within fans of martial arts films. To Asian cinephiles, he's known for choreographing the sublime fight scenes in films like Once Upon a Time in China and Fist of Legend. To Hollywood audiences, he's known for his more derivative but still effective work on films like The Matrix and Kill Bill: Volume 1. Within the confines of true martial arts films, Woo-ping has an incredibly deft and simplistic approach to his action that is elevated by its visceral nature and primality. It's fast-paced chaotic fury beautifully captured in the sinewy confines of the human form. In his Hollywood films, Woo-ping traffics more in flashy and over-the-top stylistics to sell the spectacle. True Legend, a film both directed and choreographed by Woo-ping, is somewhere in between these two approaches.
Facts of the Case
Su Can (Vincent Zhao, Once Upon a Time in China IV) is a renowned general who has just valiantly saved a prince from the clutches of certain death. Given the promise of being made a governor, Su Can instead gives the promotion to his envious step-brother Yuan (Andy On, Election 2) and decides to return home. Years later, we find Su Can as a happy family man about to open his martial arts school. His brother Yuan is returning after many years apart to celebrate his stepfather's birthday. But instead of bringing gifts, Yuan brings vengeance. Having mastered the Five Venom Fists technique of his late father, Yuan defeats Su Can and leaves him for dead. Su Can, half-dead and filled with toxin, is rescued by Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh, Super Cop), given new life, and put on a course of vengeance that might just drive him mad.
I wouldn't consider myself a rabid Yuen Woo-ping fan, but he choreographed some of my favorite kung-fu films of all time. So I went into True Legend expecting a goofy but fun piece of escapism. Unfortunately, Woo-ping's vision gets blurred in trying to blend western and Chinese styles into a cohesive film. The fight scenes he crafted alongside genre legends Jackie Chan (Snake in the Eagle's Shadow) and Jet Li (Fearless) were hard-hitting, no-nonsense, and grounded in reality (for the most part). They possessed an in-your-face quality that got your blood flowing and your eyes popping. With this film though, Woo-ping has leaned too heavily on wires to craft ridiculously indulgent fight scenes that sell the spectacle instead of the martial artist. It's a pastiche of many different, and better, kung-fu films.
The first two acts of True Legend are surprisingly well done. It's a meticulously crafted Wuxia picture that may lack originality and have more than a few cheesy components, but it satisfies the basic desire to see people kicking some ass. The generic redemption-through-training by the hero is even given an interesting twist, as we must consider whether our hero is being trained by the God of Wushu or going insane because of the toxin in his blood. When shifting into the third act, the film groans under its own weight and indulgence.
The problem with True Legend stems from giving too much control to Woo-ping over every aspect of the film. He needed a strong voice in his ear when it came time to edit and keep it tonally cohesive. I may be an overreaction to say that Hollywood has poisoned his genius, but it sure seems like it. On the positive side, the film does look great. From the settings and the production design, to the flashy nature of some of the fight sequences, this is a beautiful looking story. And some early swordplay scenes have a great frenetic energy to them, even if Woo-ping doesn't steady the camera long enough to capture every last detail of his dance of death the way that he used to. Sadly, it's a flash of brilliance that is soon snuffed out.
What we get in the third act is your typical nationalist-fueled spectacle where our hero must fight to defend the honor of China against the abhorrent nature of Western values and culture. While the genre has always had a certain nationalist core, it's never seemed as vehement as it had recently…and it's getting tiresome. Woo-ping has taken this marginally cool and effective Wuxia picture and turned it into a generic failure in the span of 30 minutes. I understand True Legend is based on the legend of Beggar Su, a famous folk hero in Chinese martial arts, so the film needs to take a direction like this in order to transform its hero into something beyond a mortal man. But tonally and stylistically it just doesn't work with what came before it.
It's no use in bemoaning what can't be changed. Woo-ping does do well in populating his film with very capable martial arts stars. While Vincent Zhao may not be Jet Li, he's still enjoyable as a lead man. It would be nice, however, to cut away some of those cables and see how capable he really is. Similarly, Andy On is decent as the film's villain and master of the Five Venom Fists technique. His character is sickly white with devilish armor sown right into his skin; it makes the character automatically menacing and vile. There's also a cameo by the late great David Carradine (Death Race 2000). It may be a generic westerner role, but it's nice to see him again after his untimely death. The brightest spot of the film is a short cameo by Hong Kong superstar Michelle Yeoh. She's not given much to do, but just seeing her me go back and watch The Heroic Trio and Tai-chi Master to remember what a real martial arts film used to be.
With a different third act, True Legend could have been much better than it is. Yuen Woo-ping needs to go back to the drawing board and give us another martial arts masterpiece. It's either that or whore himself out to Hollywood some more.
At least Vivendi has put out a decent package to make True Legend more enjoyable. The DVD comes with a strong standard def transfer that has been letterboxed to preserve the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image is mostly strong with the lush color palette of the film being reproduced effectively. There is a bit of color saturation, but that's not unusual for films of this genre. Black levels are a lot weaker than they should be, but this is only a problem in the early scenes. The Dolby 5.1 Mandarin track is very good, with fight scenes that have a crispness about them as we hear ribs crack and flesh mangle. The lingering of sound effects is also greatly utilized on the back channels, giving it a real surround feel. Best of all, dialogue is never swallowed up by the frenetic action, which is always a plus for martial arts pictures.
The special features are enjoyable but pretty straightforward. There are five basic featurettes: Storyboard-to-Scene comparison piece, a music video, an international trailer for the film, and a scannable QR code for additional bonus features, and a music download. Sadly, I don't have a fancy smart phone that can scan one of these things, so I can't really tell you what these extra special features are.
If you want to watch a great Zui Quan-style martial arts flick, seek out The Legend of Drunken Master. If you can enjoy True Legend for what it is, this DVD may be worth a look.
Guilty on the grounds of being uninspired.
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Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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