This enjoyably daft wushu movie by fight choreography and wire-work maestro Yuen Woo-Ping (Kung Fu Massacre, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill to name just a few) tells the story of Su Can, a beggar and former general who developed the ‘drunken boxing’ style of kung fu. It’s an odd little film that feels like two pasted together, with the main narrative seeming to come to a close after an hour or so, only for Yuen to remember he hadn’t included much drunken boxing so adds a forty minute epilogue to explain why Su Can is the eponymous ‘True Legend’ of wushu.
General Su’s father takes in the son and daughter of a defeated enemy, a rogue warrior using his ‘Five Venom Fist’ technique to amass a rampaging army. Years later, the defeated enemy’s son, General Yuan Ying (Xun Zhou) returns from battle having mastered Five Venom Fist himself to find his sister married to Su, and determines to take revenge for his father’s death. It’s a pretty black and white revenge tale, characters are basically sketched but Xun Zhou makes for a great villain, poison coursing through his veins and armour stitched into his skin.
But it’s the fight scenes which are always going to be the measure of a film like this, and whilst often brilliantly executed, Yuen can’t seem to let them speak for themselves. In the best Shaw Brothers’ pictures of the 70s and 80s, fight sequences would unfurl in single takes, with minimal camera movement and editing. The athleticism and prowess of the fighters would be sufficient, supplying enough movement and kineticism to negate the need for any added through the camera or, especially, through CGI. The Jackie Chan film Drunken Master (1978) and its sequel on which Yuen served as fight choreographer, left the dynamism to Jackie, ramping and removing frames wasn’t necessary as the pace and rhythm of the scene was dictated entirely through the choreography. It’s a lesson well learned by the likes of Tony Jaa and fight director Panna Rittikrai in Thailand, a country which seems to have displaced Hong Kong in recent years as the most exciting proponent of vital, contemporary martial arts pictures
Yuen can’t resist a bit of slow motion and the fight sequences are over-edited too. There seem to be two camera styles in operation for these scenes, it’s either handheld and too close to the action for the grittier earthbound sequences, or swooping CG augmented shots that sweep around them. Neither help show the fights, and you’re left with the impression that a tripod might have been a worthwhile investment in order for us to really see what’s going on. The poorly post-converted 3D, implemented on just two occasions (thankfully) adds nothing to the experience, with the familiar ghosting and inability to maintain focus during movement (surely a key component of a fight scene!) simply hindering the experience further.
Luckily though, the fight scenes do come pretty thick and fast, with the battles between Su and Yuan being particularly effective. The drunken boxing element comes out of the blue and doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, and neither do the imagined fight scenes atop Wushu Mountain against the God of Wushu, although they do offer a wink to the more traditional 70s Wushu films, particularly in the casting of Chia Hui Liu as a Gordon Liu/Pei Wei style archetype of the genre. The CG work is immediately noticeable, especially in the mountaintop sequences, and there are perhaps a few too many unnecessary, computer-augmented virtuoso camera moves (swooping up into the sky and into the pupil of a passing eagle I could have done without).
There’s still plenty of fun to be had though, the final fight against a bunch of what seem to be wrestlers or cage fighters doesn’t top that against Yuan in the middle and cameos from Michelle Yeoh and David Carradine are functionless and bizarre, but it moves along quickly enough and beats any alternative American appropriation/bastardisation of Hong Kong action cinema (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 3D!). It’s certainly not up there with Fist of Legend (1994), Five Deadly Venoms (1978), Dirty Ho (1979) or even Yuen’s own earlier Drunken Master pictures, but I’ve certainly sat through worse examples of the genre.
True Legend - 2010 - China - 115 mins - Dir : Yuen Woo-Ping