Yuen Woo Ping has been using his fight choreography talents for well over a decade now – not only in his native China, but also in Hollywood with The Matrix and Kill Bill films perhaps being the most significant. But with True Legend he takes the directorial reins and goes back to his roots with a fightfest which harks back to his work on the now legendary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The innovative wirework from that film is now almost compulsory in martial arts films, which is something that tends to divide people; but if you’re a fan of "wire-fu", True Legend delivers in spades.
Su (Man Cheuk Chiu) is one of the most highly-regarded warriors in the Qing dynasty but despite this position decides to retire to a peaceful life with his wife Ying (Xun Zhou) to have a child and to practice his beloved wushu. However, when his adopted brother, Yuan Lie (Andy On) returns to fulfil a long-standing revenge plan Su is left for dead and his son is kidnapped. Saved only by Ying and the mountain-dwelling doctor Yu (Michelle Yeoh), Su resolves to perfect his martial arts skills to defeat Yuan Lie and bring his family back together.
Shot partly in 3D for its theatrical release, this is a strange confection. Almost as if there wasn’t the budget to shoot the whole thing in the extra dimension, the screening requires you to put on your glasses at certain times which is not only slightly irritating but also takes you out of the film somewhat. It makes some sense as these are ‘dream’ sequences but even so it feels gimmicky and cheap. The fight sequences themselves are imaginative and, as you’d expect, brilliantly choreographed with a surprising amount of variation. It’s violent, as you’d expect, and Ping seems especially fond of his characters spitting blood after a hectic bout of fisticuffs.
But while some elements are expertly done others are rather lacking. The acting is more than a tad overdone and some of the characters descend into caricature. Although Andy On makes a decent villain, Man Cheuk Chiu is decidedly better when he’s wielding a sword and at times it’s all a bit Monkey. Perhaps the strangest part though is the final half hour in which our hero practises ‘Drunken Fighting’ which is essentially wushu with added wine and comedy staggering. It feels very much tagged onto what was a complete story in its own right and can only really have been included to maintain a link to the folklore on which the film is based. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work and while it doesn’t ruin True Legend it certainly does it no favours.
Overall though, this is an entertaining piece of martial arts shenanigans which looks good (the iffy 3D sequences aside), has a small cameo from David Carradine (yes, really!) and will satisfy fans of the genre without ever reaching the heights of Ping’s more celebrated work.