True Legend: Film Review

Diverting but unmemorable martial arts feature unlikely to become a classic.

American audiences know Hong Kong filmmaker Yuen Woo Ping's accomplishments even if they don't recognize his name.

American audiences know Hong Kong filmmaker Yuen Woo Ping's accomplishments even if they don't recognize his name. 

From The Matrix trilogy to both volumes of Kill Bill, Yuen has made his mark in Hollywood as a superlative action choreographer, following a renowned career in China, honed on classics like Fist of Legend and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

His first outing in 14 years as a director sees Yuen returning to the martial arts arena of his early career. Genre adherents likely to recognize Yuen's name value will doubtless give the film a look, but lack of star power means most viewers will eventually catch up with True Legend on DVD.

In mid-1800s China, a standout first act filled with combat scenes and martial arts clashes spotlights General Su (Vincent Zhao) as he prepares to retire from the imperial army. Following an illustrious career, he returns to his father's home to reunite with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) and young son in preparation for establishing a martial arts academy.

The overlong second act relates Ying's attempts to help Su recover from the poisoning of Yuan's Five Venom assault with the assistance of the mysterious Dr. Yu (Michelle Yeoh) and Su's struggle to regain his fighting skills. His intensive training routines, involving imaginary bouts in a fanciful CGI landscape with the supreme being known as the God of Wushu (Jay Chou), are repetitive and predictable, eventually leading to a decisive confrontation with Yuan.

This furiously intense face-off would be the logical conclusion of Su's quest for revenge, but Yuen and screenwriter Christine To prolong the action by tacking on a postscript that has Su, now a wandering, inebriated beggar who's perfected the Drunken Fist fighting style, going up against some very nasty Russian wrestlers managed by a greedy gambling impresario (David Carradine) in the film's final set piece.

Although To's script inventively draws on the "legend" of Su Cao, credited with creating the Drunken Fist marital arts technique, the plot's meandering midsection sags with narrative inertia and digressions.

Overall, Yuen's fluid directing style suits the film's rapid action sequences, smoothly integrating them into the plot to showcase a variety of martial arts forms. Uneven digital effects range from eye-popping to eye-rolling, although the cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding is otherwise muscular and nimble.

Naturally enough, pulse-quickening action predominates over dramatic performance, with martial arts talents Vincent Zhao and Andy On displaying virtuoso skills with swords, staffs, fists and kicks, along with a variety of different combat styles. Actor-pop star Jay Chou is adequate but less than impressive as the God of Wushu, while renowned martial arts actor and action expert Michelle Yeoh is woefully squandered in the doctor's role – lacking even a single action sequence -- and Carradine appears frail and hesitant in one of his final film appearances.

Opens: May 13 (Indomina Releasing)
Production: Focus Features International, EDKO Film, Shanghai Film GroupCast: Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Gordon Liu, Cung Le
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Screenwriter: Christine To
Producers: Bill Kong, Cary Cheng, Wang Tianyun, Xu Jianha
Executive producers: Bill Kong, Ren Zhonglun, Zhang Zhenyan, Zhang Qiang
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Production designer: Huo Tingxiao
Costume designer: Yee Chung Man
Editor: Wenders Li
Rated R, 116 minutes