True Legend

Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): ****

Yuen Woo-Ping began his career as an actor in martial arts movies in the 1960s. He rose to prominence when he directed the breakthrough Drunken Master (1978), one of Jackie Chan's greatest early roles. He began a multi-faceted career, involving acting, stunts, fight choreography, and occasional directing. His feats became known in America and he was hired to choreograph the exciting, fluid, fast-paced action sequences for movies like The Matrix series, the Kill Bill movies, and Unleashed as well as international productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle, and Fearless. In 2001, Quentin Tarantino helped bring Yuen's dazzling Iron Monkey (1993) to American theaters. But despite all this notice, acclaim, and employment, he has not directed another movie in over ten years. Thankfully True Legend comes out on DVD this week, and it's a real stunner.

Not unlike some other recent Chinese movies, Red Cliff, Ip Man 2, and Legend of the Fist [review], it's something of a historical epic, based on true stories. Vincent Zhao stars as Su Can, a warrior who hangs up his sword so that he can marry his sweetheart and raise a family. Unfortunately, his sadistic brother-in-law, Yuan (Andy On), who was raised by Su's father, decides to get revenge by killing the old man. Su roars into battle with Yuan, and winds up defeated by Yuan's nasty use of the "Five Venoms." His wife, Ying (Zhou Xun), dives into a raging river to rescue him and they both wind up on a remote mountaintop. An angelic wine-maker (Michelle Yeoh), nurses Su back to health, and he begins training to restore strength to his injured arm.

Meanwhile, the evil Yuan -- whose skin turns a freakish white -- has the couple's young son and jealously guards him. Su begins venturing daily into the mountains where he battles with the God of Wushu (Jay Chou); or is he just losing his mind? Eventually Su makes it back to civilization and faces his menacing step-brother; the fight doesn't quite turn out as expected, which sends the movie into an unexpected third act. Without saying too much more, this segment features some terrific drunken boxing. And, in one of his final roles, David Carradine appears as a nasty American fight trainer.

In the past few years, Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers seem to have been upping the stakes, making bigger and more spectacular movies to make up for the post-1997 slump. Most of these have paid off, but True Legend, for whatever reason, did not make back its budget in its home release.

It starts off spectacularly, with some of the finest, fastest and most graceful fight footage I've ever seen, but by the final act, the movie has turned a bit soapy; the main character has an unfortunately tendency to sulk and feel sorry for himself for long periods, which could have turned off audiences. Perhaps director Yuen is better in smaller, more focused portions than he is at big epics. However, fight fans can appreciate this movie in its glorious bits and pieces and come away fully satisfied.

The DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Vivendi, comes with five behind-the-scenes featurettes, a story-board-to-scene featurette, a music video, trailers, and more.

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