The ’90s were a heyday for kung-fu freaks, as Hong Kong continued to pump out top-shelf actioners while American video stores helped fans catch up with the classics of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Since the turn of the millennium, the genre hasn’t been as vital, perhaps because Hollywood has plundered some of the best HK moves and talent, or perhaps because an overemphasis on repeating old stories and styles has sapped some excitement. Both those issues are in play with True Legend, a muddled re-hash of several familiar kung-fu epics, directed by Yuen Woo-ping, a Hong Kong veteran who recently spent a lot of time as an action coordinator for big American movies, and seems to have come away with the lesson that spectacle trumps storytelling.
True Legend stars Vincent Zhao as a warrior who retires from the battlefield to get married and start a wu shu school, but has his idyllic life shattered when his adopted brother Andy On beats him nearly to death—with the help of his literally poisonous “Five Venom Fists” technique—and kidnaps his son. So Zhao retreats into alcoholism and despair, until his industrious wife (Zhou Xun) and his imaginary master, “The God Of Wu Shu,” whip him into shape for a rematch. Then the movie tacks on a bizarre third act that sees Zhao using his “drunken fighting” technique in a series of matches staged for decadent colonialists. True Legend weaves the fantastical, the technique-driven, and the historical sides of kung fu movies together with wire-work. It practically defines the term “warmed over.”
Still, anyone who fondly remembers the kung-fu glory years will likely get a nostalgic rush from True Legend, and not just because of the cameo appearances by Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and David Carradine. The movie is wall-to-wall action, and features an eye-popping image roughly every 10 minutes: warriors clinging to the underside of a hanging bridge with claw-gloves; On’s veins and skin turning blackish-purple with venom; On’s body-armor, which is made of gold and has been sewn into his skin; Zhao using a sword to deflect the tiny flying daggers thrown by the costumed “Iron Twins”; Zhao fighting on a slippery rail by a rushing river; and so on. True Legend’s heart is in the right place. It’s just the body that’s weary.