Title: True Legend
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Starring: Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, Guo Xiaodong, David Carradine
An unusual sort of prequel to the influential 1978 Hong Kong martial arts comedy “Drunken Master”, starring Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen, Chinese import “True Legend”, from respected fight choreographer and filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping, arrives Stateside following a fairly disappointing theatrical run in Eastern territories, and it’s fairly easy to understand why. A bloated period piece epic that features a generally nice blend of CGI-assisted blood-letting and fantastical, “Matrix”-y punches in which people fly through wooden support beams and stone fixtures (more on this later), the movie never gets past or over the limits of its wooden, stilted set-up, and then, finally and damningly, wears out its welcome with a plodding and entirely unnecessary final act that offers none of the catharsis its makers seem to imagine it does.
A set of title cards places the opening action late during China’s Qing dynasty, around 1861, when the practice of the martial art wushu flourished. After a triumphant battle, Su Can (Vincent Zhao) turns down an important political appointment, wanting instead to retire to the countryside and raise a family with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun). He recommends his foster brother and brother-in-law Yuan (Andy On) for the position of governor. Flash forward several years, when an inexplicably pallid and psychopathic Yuan returns, with protective armor sewn into his skin, and having mastered the deadly “Five Venom Fists” technique. It turns out that Yuan’s stepfather murdered his biological father, and he’s out for vengeance — to retrieve his sister Ying, along with the young son, Feng, she shares with Su.
Fists fly, and a wounded Su ends up in a raging river, along with Ying. They are nursed back to health by the kindly Dr. Yu (Michelle Yeoh), a sort of rural moonshiner, and Su, his arm tendons severed along with his confidence, undertakes a systematic and grueling training regimen to try to prepare his body to take on Yuan and rescue little Feng. Well, that, and he develops a habit for the drink, possibly hallucinating a pair of mountaintop mentors. A simple, prescribed path of vengeance would seem to follow, and while “True Legend” does track roughly on that level, it also spins forward to detail much of the aftermath of that quest.
Though powered by a characteristically demonstrative acting style, “True Legend” doesn’t really dip into much if any comedy, unlike some of the other films featuring the same character of Su, whose “zui quan” (or, literally, “drunken fist”) fighting style was earlier popularized by such depictions. This is basically a period piece action-heavy romance, of men settling familial scores with their fists and swords. Of course, it’s not married to realism, so director Yuen Woo-Ping — whose work is most familiar to American mainstream audiences in the form of his fight choreography for the “Matrix” trilogy, the “Kill Bill” films, “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — amps up the physics- and gravity-defying fisticuffs, with fitfully engaging results. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding — who has plenty of experience with costumed swordplay in the form of “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” — for the most part captures this action with aplomb, though slow-motion work and some wonky editing choices occasionally undercut things.
If “True Legend” was trim and less possessing of a grim self-seriousness, it would work a lot better. But if, as it seems, part of the main intent or purpose of “True Legend” was really to explain why Su turns to drinking in the first place (and hence is the “Drunken Master”), there are much better and faster ways to arrive at that conclusion than screenwriter Christine To concocts. After a fairly engaging and streamlined opening 75-80 minutes, the film winds on in excruciating fashion, charting Su’s downward spiral — the sort of thing which would be compressed into a montage or pair of scenes in a more conventional American action movie — over the course of 35-plus more minutes. This allows for plenty of time for little Feng to cry out “Father, stand up!” roughly 45 times, and Su to eventually dispatch a goon squad of ‘roided-out Caucasian wrestler-types in his characteristic drunken/breakdance-style, all while the late David Carradine pops up in a pointless cameo, and yells things like, “Finish this Chinaman, once and for all!” None of this adds one iota of emotional heft or significance to the film.
A poor excuse for a legend explained, and too swollen and narratively unfocused to qualify as a martial arts treat outside of the most devoted and hardcore Eastern action genre demographic, “True Legend” proves that some backstories are perhaps best left untold and unexplored.
Written by: Brent Simon