Starring Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Guo Xiao Dong, Li Zo, Suen Hanwen, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Conan Stevens
Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping
Expectations: High, been looking forward to this for a while.
True Legend marks Yuen Woo-Ping’s return to the director’s chair, his first film since 1996! The dude made Iron Monkey and Tai Chi Master for God’s sake, so this is something of a big deal for martial arts film fans. And yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Vincent Zhao plays Su Can, a virtuous military leader who passes on a governorship in order to perfect his wushu and eventually open a school. He persuades the prince to bestow this governorship on his adopted brother Yuan, who reluctantly accepts. Five years later, Yuan returns from battle to meet with his adopted father and Su Can. Catching up is the furthest thing from his mind though, as Yuan seeks revenge for the murder of his father!
The first thirty minutes or so are exposition heavy (and home to some of the more distressing and blatant uses of CGI), but once the story is set, you’re good to go with a great, modern martial arts revenge movie. There’s a fantastic training montage, the likes of which haven’t been seen in a very long time. The last half hour is a bit strange though, with the grand narrative climax and companion epic fight coming at the end of the second act, leaving me scratching my head wondering why it was structured the way it was. In the final moments, it does becomes clear why, but it almost seems like they could have really milked that third act into an entire sequel if they wished to and it would have made True Legend have a greater final impact. In any case, the last half hour contains what now seems to be the requisite Nationalist Chinese vs. Westerner fight. It’s pretty fun to watch, if only for the fact that you probably haven’t seen a drunken boxer go up against an American wrestler outside of Sega’s Virtua Fighter.
There are splashes of computer FX throughout, but thankfully it’s kept to somewhat of a minimum. The fanciful scenes with the God of Wushu (Jay Chou) and the Old Sage (Gordon Liu) are by far the biggest computer-aided set pieces and those actually make sense given the look and aesthetic they were shooting for. CG in Hong Kong movies has always been fairly poor, but here it’s actually not too bad for the most part. Even still, I couldn’t help but think how much more awesome and down-to-Earth the film would have been if it had been produced around 1993 or so.
Vincent Zhao is excellent as our hero Su Can. He is able to hit every dramatic beat necessary, while also showcasing a wonderful control of his body. Sure, there’s some wirework here and there, but Zhao has really come into his own. I don’t remember him ever being this good in the previous films I’ve seen, so I was quite impressed. This reminds me I want to go back and check out Once Upon a Time in China 4 & 5, in which he took over the Wong Fei-Hung role from Jet Li. But, if there’s one dude nobody will forget coming out of this movie, it’s Andy On. He’s fucking incredible in every scene he’s in, mixing a vengeful evil heart with furious skill and making for one hell of a cold-blooded villain. This is the first film I’ve seen him in and I can totally see this guy becoming huge. He plays his role to the letter and has the cinematic fighting chops to complete the deal. The climactic fight between On and Zhao that ends the second act is worth the price of admission alone. It’s simply incredible. The rest of the cast is great as well, with a number of fun cameos from big stars to delight martial film fans.
The production values are very high and the cinematography is gorgeous. The sound was fucking astounding as well, I felt like I was getting punched in the face with every hit. This is easily a contender for best sound effects in a martial arts film. I’m unsure if a mainstream audience would connect with the film as quickly as with something like Ip Man, but for seasoned martial arts fans this movie is a no brainer. Despite my distaste for computer in my martial arts films and the strange narrative jump at the end, True Legend succeeds in delivering a beautiful, hard-hitting tale of revenge.
True Legend opened 5/13/11 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and New York, so if that’s you, check it out! Hopefully it’ll expand in the coming weeks.