Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Writer: Christine To Chi Long
Producer: Bill Kong Chi Keung
Cast: Vincent Chiu Man Chuk, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Jay Chou Kit Lun, Michelle Yeoh, Leung Kar Yan, Jiang Lu Xia, Gordon Liu, David Carradine, Guo Xiao Dong, Feng Xiaogang, Jacky Heung Cho, Le Cung, Will Liu Keng Hung, Yan Ni
Running Time: 116 min.
Tell me again why Vincent Zhao never became as big as Jet Li? Despite starring in movies like Tsui Hark’s cult classic “The Blade” and the underrated martial arts flick “Fist Power,” Vincent Zhao’s star never really shined as bright as many of his peers. Yuen Woo-Ping’s latest film, the 2010 mystical kung fu epic “True Legend,” then, is Zhao’s chance to steal the spotlight: the movie is 2 hours of Zhao doing nothing but kicking ass and taking names.
The film actually features several great onscreen martial artists: Andy On (“Bad Blood“), Cung Le (“Bodyguards & Assassins“), Luxia Jiang (“Coweb“), Jay Chou. Well, I thought Jay Chou (Kato in the latest “Green Hornet” film) was just a singer-turned-actor but Yuen Woo-Ping saw fit to cast him as “The God of Wushu” so Ping must know something I don’t. To be fair, this is probably my favorite role of Chou’s.
Since the story is essentially an homage to classic Shaw Brothers movies, we also get a few cameos from old-school greats like Gordon Liu (“36th Chamber of Shaolin“) and Leung Kar Yan (“Five Shaolin Masters“). Rounding out the all-star cast is Michelle Yeoh and David Carradine in walk-on roles. It’s nice to have them in the film but I bet their paychecks were embarrassingly large for what amounts to less than 5 minutes of screentime.
Like any kung fu movie worth its salt, “True Legend” spins a twisted tale of revenge and redemption. Vincent Zhao plays a great military general during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty. He retires to a quiet life of teaching Wushu and lets his brother-in-law (Andy On), who’s always felt he was in Zhao’s shadow, take up position as governor. The years pass and Andy On returns, now infused with the dark power of the Five Venom Fists, his skin turned a ghastly Dracula white as a result. Andy still holds a grudge against Zhao and decides to take what he believes is rightfully his – and a bloody battle ensues. If you’re getting the hunch that Vincent Zhao is going to have to train for years and years to find a way to defeat the Five Venom Fists, then you’ve seen your share of martial arts movies too.
Had Yuen Woo-Ping stuck with this storyline and expanded on it a bit – explained why Andy On’s character became so evil and explored his tragic childhood with Vincent Zhao – I might have even given “True Legend” a solid 10/10. For better or worse, the film pulls an “Ip Man 2” towards the end and tacks on an extended third act in which Chinese martial artists must defend their pride against burly Westerners. It’s the scene where Jet Li fought Nathan Jones in “Fearless,” extrapolated to thirty minutes. The action here is still fun to watch but it’s not like seeing Vincent Zhao fight Andy On in a life or death battle at the one hour mark – two immensely skilled opponents fighting with lethal precision. Their extended fight scene is definitely the highlight of the film and a showcase for Yuen Woo-Ping’s ace choreography. The final 30 minutes don’t quite match that thrill; “True Legend’s” one glaring flaw is that it doesn’t quit when the going’s good.
Regardless, the entire film is full of excellent, wire-assisted martial arts battles. The emphasis here is on R-rated blows to the head and lethal stabbings rather than balletic, dance-like moves. The performances are decent, even if the script tends to rush through anything resembling character development. Actress Zhou Xun is almost unbearably gorgeous as Vincent Zhao’s loyal wife; it’s the kind of role usually reserved for Fan Bingbing but Xun is given much more to do here than just dote on her husband. Computer-generated backgrounds are a frequent eyesore – perhaps Yuen Woo-Ping was going for the whole “300” digital backdrop feel – but they’re easy enough to overlook.
What makes “True Legend” so enjoyable is that doesn’t feel like a 2010 film at all. At its heart, it’s a throwback to the classic Shaw Brothers films, with their tales of deadly techniques and treebark-smashing punches, and a celebration of Yuen Woo-Ping’s fight choreography. If you can tolerate some less than stellar special effects and a disjointed third act, “True Legend” is a damn good time at the movies. With any luck, it will lead to more high profile projects for underdog Vincent Zhao. This is a martial arts flick for people who love martial arts flicks.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8.5/10