Yuen Woo-Ping knows how to choreograph a fight, but the challenges of directing a compelling movie aren’t quite as easy to overcome. While he has a long history of telling the Drunken Fist story, this is the first dramatic telling of the narrative and the results are sadly mixed. True Legend is a wild romp through the long and winding road of Beggar So that feels oddly pieced together despite the rousing final act. The film has its ups and downs, but the end result is a bit of a mess that leaves one feeling that it could have been so much more. Hit the jump for the full review.
The story begins with the rescue of a prince in a mountain fortress by Su Can (Vincent Zhao) and his adopted younger brother Yuan Lie (Andy On). Upon returning, the prince promises that Su will become a governor, but after a life of battle and glory he only wishes to return home and focus on martial arts and his family with his wife Ying, Yuan’s sister. When Yuan returns years later, having become a successful warrior in his own right, Su’s father fears that Yuan seeks something evil instead. When it is revealed that Yuan has learned the devious Five Venom Fist, it tears the family apart and Su is left broken, humiliated, and separated from his young child Feng. With the help of the Lord Wushu (Jay Chou), Su avenges his past defeat but the price is far too great for him to handle. Years later, as the bumbling Beggar So, he finds passion once again in the Drunken Fist technique and has one final test before his legacy is filled.
First and foremost, let’s talk about the fights. Yuen Woo-Ping has a legacy of excellent fights, and these are no different. The opening fights in the mountains are over the top but enthralling. As they bound from the different perilous ledges, we clearly know things aren’t real but they are played out in such a way that they are fantastic to watch. Violent and brutal, the battle takes a fun approach and they really make great use of the landscape. When Su Can fights his adopted brother Yuan, there is a gritty and powerful feel on the screen. Everything moves in a rapid-fire pace that complements the way the action is framed. Because of the involvement of the Five Venom Fists style, Yuan is clearly the stronger of the fighters and takes an almost willful pounding at first, as if he is teasing Su. However, things get a bit too whimsical later in the narrative as Su fights Lord Wushu during his road to recovery.
While most of the fights in True Legend feel realistic and smooth, the backdrop of the fights with the lord is clearly CGI, and the way they move seems like they are running on air instead of the surface of wherever they are. The fights themselves cover a lot of ground over a gigantic mountain, and the interaction feels trippy instead of powerful. Whether intentional or not, it feels odd, as if it is more of an experiment than a finished product. As Su fights the numerous wrestlers with the Drunken Fist technique in the third act, the pace and excitement have thankfully picked up. The two biggest treats here are the battles with Yuan and the Five Venom Fist and the use of Drunken Fist to battle the western wrestlers. The middle is where the film hits a snag in the fights and the story.
True Legend feels much longer than its 116 minute runtime, which immediately raises warning flags about the flow of the film. The first and second act flow and work as a narrative, even if it is a bumpy ride. However, the transition between the second and third act is a bit off-putting in its abruptness. In fact, the third act could very well be expanded into a film itself, as this is the true discovery and formation of the Drunken Fist technique. Everything before feels connected, but different at the same time and this odd juxtaposition hurts the film. However, not everything is bad about the story and the characters within.
The third act might be the best part of the film, outside of the opening mountain fight scenes. Su is struggling to feed himself and in his drunken haze of sorrow, he neglects his only child. The story revolves around their relationship and how Feng loves his father no matter what they have to endure. Su is caring when he isn’t falling over himself, and even goes as far as trying to have someone else look after his son instead when he realizes how down and out they are. By the climactic battle, you are rooting for Su instead of feeling resentment for him not taking adequate care of his son. This transition is helped by the acting of Vincent Zhao as he wanders about in a cloud of intense loathing.
True Legend is populated by familiar actors, as Michelle Yeoh appears as a caring mountain doctor that heals the wounded and poisoned Su. Meanwhile, David Carradine is Anthony, the corrupt stable master for the wrestlers that Su must battle with in the final act. Andy On as the devious Yuan is dark and brooding with the right amount of deceitful innocence to fool the naïve Su and Jay Chou is the untouchable Lord Wushu that torments Su. Additionally, the scenery that the characters of True Legend inhabit is diverse and helps separate the narrative arcs.
Ultimately, True Legend is an unsteady dramatic narrative that feels tacked on in places and whimsical instead of powerfully epic. Even Yuen Woo-Ping’s fights ride the rollercoaster of the story through the peaks and valleys, leaving audiences with a mixture of emotions. If you can fight through the middle along with Su as he struggles to regain his passion, you can find some real diamonds in the rough of True Legend.