Celebrated martial-arts filmmaker Yuen Woo Ping (the action-director behind “The Matrix Trilogy,” “Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) brings his knack for hyperkinetic fight scenes to his latest directorial effort, “True Legend.” While there’s no doubting that the film is charged with the same zeal for kung-fu theatrics that’s come to distinguish Woo Ping’s cinema (“Drunken Master 2” remains a personal favorite), “True Legend” suffers from an erratic narrative pace, shoddy characters and an overuse of digital gimmickry, all of which create the impression of an ersatz epic spectacle.
“True Legend” means to be a tribute to its real-life central character, Su Can, the 19th-century founder of the so-called Drunken Fist technique of martial arts. Viewers familiar with Jackie Chan’s fighting style in the two-part “Drunken Master” series – in which the star combined the comical capering of a drunkard with the lethally swift movements of a kung-fu master – will immediately recall it.
After retiring from his stellar military career, Su Can (Vincent Zhao) retreats to a country life with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) and son. But Ying’s brother, Yuan Lie (Andy On) – whose father was killed by Su Can’s father in an age-old feud – longs to avenge his father’s death. Possessing supernatural martial arts skills – Yuan exacts brutal punishment on Su Can and banishes him.
Su Can now finds himself in exile at a mountaintop sanctuary, under the care a mystic healer Dr. Yu (Michelle Yeoh, in a welcome cameo). There, he trains to become the elite master of the Drunken Fist technique, with some help from the Drunken God himself (Jay Chou). All of this leads to the inevitable, blood-spattering clash with Yuan Lie, of which Su Can’s wife falls casualty.
You’d think that the two’s confrontation was the finale, but it isn’t. The final third of “True Legend” becomes an extended episode in Su Can’s life, and it’s more engaging overall than the story preceding it. Left to fend for his boy and wandering China drunk and in rags, Su Can finds the zeal to rejuvenate his fighting skills after another run-in with his old mentor, the Drunken God. His spirit is galvanized (naturally!) during a gladiator-style death match against a gang of white, mixed martial arts fighters (in a wry appearance, David Carradine plays their nefarious manager), a scene brimming with the kind of anti-colonial indignation that’s another of this genre’s hallmarks.
As Su Can, the compact, super-agile Zhao dazzles with his athleticism alongside a cast of equally impressive fighter-actors. And Woo Ping integrates the hand-to-hand combat with his trademark wirework, sending his actors into preternatural dives and leaps. But as a cohesive, engaging narrative, “True Legend” is utterly at a loss. Christine To’s script provides us with a gallery of stereotypes – action pieces that Woo Ping can’t wait to pit against each other. A fitful impatience characterizes the pacing, so that viewers never engage with the characters except on the most superficial levels. Equally unfortunate are the digital effects – which often feels like a low-budget nod to “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” series – evident in the overabundant shots of animated rooftops, mountains, soaring eagles, all cheaply deployed and only putting us at a greater distance from the material. The result is an emotionally uninvolving, dramatically empty affair that, thankfully, boasts some world-class martial-arts skills on display.
Directed by: Yuen Woo Ping
Written by: Christine To
Starring: Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Godron Liu, Cung Lee