There’s nothing like a good martial arts movie like “True Legend” to make you feel inadequate as both a writer and an athlete. It’s bad enough to have to watch these men perform remarkable acts with impossible grace while you’re still sore from the mile you ran on the treadmill two days ago (I swear I have a six pack, you guys. It’s just nestled safely beneath a sixteen ounce bag of marshmallows). But then how do you explain what makes it great? You might as well try explaining a sunset to a man who’s lived in a cave his whole life. I envy the dance critic, who can write from their knowledge of technique, form, history, and context. As a film critic writing about martial arts I’m basically limited to oblique measures like wow factor and awesomeness.
Let it be said, though, that “True Legend,” from director and martial arts choreographer supreme Yuen Woo Ping, has plenty of wow factor and loads of awesomeness. After a thirty year career full of enough highlights to guarantee cinematic immortality, Yuen could make a movie like this in his sleep, but he pretty clearly didn’t. Directing his own choreography for the first time in fifteen years, Yuen brings an adventurous spirit to “True Legend.” The fact that he’s not content to merely rest on his laurels and rehash a couple of greatest hits is refreshing. Even if some of the new tricks don’t work, enough do that you’re glad he’s taking the risks.
His story is, indeed, a true Chinese legend about the man who invented the drunken fist style of martial arts. I suppose if you know this man, Su Can, a.k.a. Beggar Su (Vincent Zhao) dand his boozy tale, you might consider “True Legend” something of a prequel, since the film is mostly about Su’s adventures before he became a drunken boxer in 1860s China. At that time, Su was just another kung fu master with the physical gifts of a demigod. Happily married with a lovely wife (Zhou Xun) and son (Li Zo), his life is shattered by the return of his jealous stepbrother Yuan (Andy On), who has never forgiven his adopted father for killing his biological father (understandable, I suppose).
Now armed with the Five Venom Fist, a mystical punch that operates along the same principles as Bart Simpson’s Touch of Death, Yuan lashes out at Su and his family in an impressively varied series of action sequences. The big blowout of this portion of the film is a battle between Su and Yuan on a slippery deck above a waterfall. That’s where Yuan reveals his other secret weapon: body armor sewn right onto his skin. Yuan’s basically the most asskickingest emo rocker ever: his stepfather killed his real dad so he learned how to destroy people with a touch and sewed metal to his skin so no one could ever hurt him again. Oh, and he’s super pale, too. If he could have worked a reference to Weezer’s “Pinkerton” into his repertoire, he could have sold millions of albums ten years ago.
After Yuan throws Su across the sea and takes possession of his son, the physically and emotionally broken man must repair his body and rediscover his confidence. Along the way he meets cameoing superstars like Michelle Yeoh and Jay Chou, consumes gallons of rice wine, and, thankfully, gets himself into plenty more fights. “True Legend”‘s action setpieces find Yuen bringing new techniques like CGI and speed ramping into his tried-and-true formula of wire fu and beautiful, intricate choreography. Some of the new stuff works. Some, like the computer rendered landscapes during Su’s fights with Chou’s God of Wushu that look like they were rendered on a Sega Saturn, don’t. While I give Yuen major style points for experimentation, he’s still unquestionably at his best spinning new takes on old classics. The retro (but tremendously inventive) fight between Su and Yuen as they scale the walls of a well will be remembered and revered by genre fanatics for years to come.
Yuen’s work on the fight scenes in “The Matrix” inspired a decade of imitators. None of them could hold a candle to the real thing. Watching his work as both director and choroegrapher of “True Legend” I began to realize why; the knock-offs stole his flash but not his fundamentals. His camera placement and movement is always perfect and he doesn’t abuse slow motion the way so many of his lesser contemporaries do, only using it when necessary to heighten emotions, to let us dwell a few seconds longer on the face of a fighter as he summons his courage, or realizes he is going to lose as he falls to the floor. Space and time are always clear in his work; you never need to pause or rewind to understand who’s doing what to who. That’s because Yuen understands that martial arts sequences are more than bodies in motion, they are bodies telling stories in motion, and that’s what really separates his work from his copycats.
The resolution of Su and Yuen’s epic sibling rivalry, and particularly where that resolution comes in the narrative of the film, didn’t make much sense to me until I read about Beggar Su realized the character was something of a Chinese folkhero. Hence the film ends not with him at his lowest ebb, but after an otherwise unnecessary epilogue where he begins to truly harness the power of drunken boxing. But, of course, the great thing about martial arts movies, inferior though they may sometimes make us feel about ourselves, is that the plot is irrelevant, and any excuse to let Vincent Zhao fight three wrestlers simultaneously is a good one. Maybe I can’t quite describe the pleasures offered by “True Legend.” But I can definitely encourage you to experience them for yourself.