|Yuan Lie (Andy On) in True Legend.|
By John Esther
What an ungrateful lout. Five years after his stepbrother, General Su (Vincent Zhao) offers the promotion he was originally offered, Yuan Lie (Andy On) comes home to wipeout the family because, hey, it is one of those kung fu "your master (father) killed my master (father)" sort of things.
Once upon a time Su's superior martial arts skills could have stopped Yuan, but Yuan's Five Venom Fists technique, plus body-stitched armor, are now too powerful for Su. After defeating Su, beating him within an inch of his life, Yuan throws Su into a great body of water whereupon Su's wife and Yuan's sister, Ying (Zhou Xun), jumps in after him, leaving their son behind with his poisonous uncle.
As the years go by, both Yuan and Su train hard at further mastering his martial arts style. Su drinks jugs of Ying's wine while Yuan sticks his fists in a bowl of scorpions. (Impressive, both would be very good pub tricks). When the time comes you can wager the two will do some serious battling; but in a world of an eye for an eye someone must die.
Eventually widowed and homeless, Su drinks himself onto the precipice of self-destruction only to discover that alcohol inebriation which does not kill you only makes a much better fighter. (I just bet the wives down at the local battered women's shelter will find comfort knowing that.)
From the opening credits to its predictable conclusion it becomes clear that True Legend lays its intelligence at the level of a superhero comic strip (or saloon delirium). Time and motion pass by as quick as character outlines are developed. The impressive production design by Huo Tingxiao provides a magical realist, wasted world where gravity, endurance, space and motion recognize fewer limits. Those are some powerful shots.
This creates for quite a few elaborate fight scenes with wildly uneven results. Directed by renowned martial arts action director Yuen Woo Ping (Hero; Kill Bill; The Matrix trilogy), there are some incredibly entertaining combat scenes (mortal, blades, sticks and all), yet for every praiseworthy action scene there is another one as annoying as a teenage jock shit-faced for the first time.
The most sobering non-fighting aspect of True Legend is the incessant emphasis on family ties when it is those very ties that pull the family apart. Yuan, then Su, are so intoxicated with revenge against father, then brother, respectively, that they try to cure the family as a whole by killing of its parts. They should have just thrown a party.
True Legend also hosts martial arts legends David Carradine, who plays a Sinophobic businessman; Michelle Yeoh, as a benevolent doctor; and Jay Chou, as the God of Wushu. While Chou's role is mostly silly and Yeoh's is a throwaway here (she does not fight), the late Carradine's performance, one of his last, is embarrassingly poor. (Are you sure you want to dedicate the film to Carradine's memory?)
Along those lines, On gives a good performance while, I imagine, his strikingly gothic good looks will seduce some audiences members into rooting for this snake to emerge victorious.
Unevenly entertaining, occasionally extremely violent and utterly predictable, True Legend amounts to little more than another martial arts fairytale, full of fists of fury, signifying little else than advocating the consumption of mass quantities of booze in order to improve one's fighting abilities -- which is a lesson we can all carry to our neighborhood drinking establishment.