Friday, 10 December 2010
TRUE LEGEND (2010)
Directed by: Yuen Woo Ping
Screenplay: Chi Long To
Starring: Man Cheuk Chiu, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Michelle Yeoh & David Carradine
Martial Arts Maestro Yuen Woo Ping returns to the directors chair after a long hiatus, where he's been busy choreographing other people's films (The Matrix, Unleashed, The Forbidden Kingdom, Fearless), to helm his own period set kung fu flick. A welcome return it is, as however uneven True Legend is in the narrative and pacing departments, there is no doubting Yuen Woo Ping has crafted an exciting, action soaked epic that harks back to the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s of Hong Kong cinema.
A historical set actioner with a comic book spin, True Legend is set in the Qing Dynasty and sees brave and honoured General Su Qi-Er (Man Cheuk Chiu) give up his life of war and fighting to live in peace with his beloved family and hopefully one day open his own school of martial arts. Such dreams of a quiet life are destroyed when Su's twisted half brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) attacks Su, leaving him and his wife for dead and kidnaps Su's young son. Broken but not beaten, Su with the help of his kindly wife (Xun Zhou) and a mysterious witch like doctor (Michelle Yeoh), re-trains himself in the fighting arts and goes gunning for vengeance. However, Su's life will take an even more dramatic turn leaving him as a wandering beggar who through his affection for drinking wine and with the support of his ever faithful son sees him perfecting the art known as Drunken Boxing and competing in vicious fight tournaments.
True Legend may split fans of martial arts cinema down the middle with it's often free wheeling tone and frequent use of CGI, but Yuen Woo Ping certainly delivers a film packed with some of the very best fight action Hong Kong has to offer. Care has gone in crafting a unique look and setting for the film, the Qing Dynasty recreated in vivid form and Ping's film always looks magnificent. The film is essentially split into two parts: Su's betrayal by his brother and subsequent training and revenge and Su's time spent wandering the land drunk following his taken revenge and perfecting the drunken boxing style. Both sections cram in quite a lot meaning the pace can be lightening quick. Despite a few welcome touching moments in between all the epic fight action (Su and his wife sitting upon some mist shrouded rocks longing for their kidnapped son) there isn't always a lot of down time in between all the fighting and training. No bad thing really as the often overwrought melodrama that plagues kung fu cinema is played down here meaning we get a more straightforward adventure film. Any shortcomings brought on by narrative jumps are made up for by Man Cheuk Chiu's energetic and committed performance as Su. Long absent from the world of feature films (having been stuck in TV fantasy melodrama's for the past ten years) Man Cheuk Chiu makes a blistering return to the big screen, embodying Su with a likability and determination for a character who isn't always the most sympathetic.
It also helps that he is a gifted, and underrated, screen fighter (check out Tsui Hark's quite simply awesome The Blade and the somewhat under-appreciated The Black Sheep Affair for further proof). Taking part in almost all of the fight and training scenes, Man Cheuk Chiu's skill is put to good use in a surfeit of wickedly staged fight scenes. He gets skillful fight support from the likes of Jay Chou (playing the gravity defying God of Wushu who helps to train Su) and Andy On, meaning there is a welcome pick of gifted fighters for Man Cheuk Chiu to fight against (also look out for Bangkok Adrenaline's Conan Stevens and Pit Fighter's Dominiquie Vandenberg as two of the Russian wrestlers Su has to fight in the finale). Ping and his team certainly make sure True Legend is crammed to the gills with fight action. Being somewhat based in fantasy, wire-work is used often to heighten the fluidity and scope of the fights and the God of Wushu training scenes are heightened with (rather too much) CGI (it not always convincing either). But at it's core the fight action is screen fighters getting to cut loose is some very full on fight scenes. Evoking the style of period set martial arts flicks from the early 1990's (Burning Paradise, Fong Sai Yuk, A Chinese Ghost Story) the fighting action is big in scope and top notch. The second, epic, battle between Su and Yuan is an amazing piece of martial arts action that is almost topped by the brutal brawl Su has between five Russian fighters in the tournament battle finale.
Some may not get past the use of CGI, the rapid pace and some characters and stylings that seem out of place on occasion (also Michelle Yeoh's, David Carradine's and Gordon Liu's parts are nothing more than glorified cameos) but on the whole True Legend is wickedly entertaining and a big, loud and proud fight film. The action and martial arts wizardry rarely lets up and Yuen Woo Ping wraps everything up in such a grand style entertaining fashion that the film's shortcomings are far outweighed by all its bonuses. Tremendous fight action and a bad guy who has armour literally sewn into his skin (bad ass!) makes True Legend a welcome and worthy martial arts spectacle.