True Legend

Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Starring: Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu
Review: 1 star (of five)

Yuen Woo-Ping is a giant, an inspired master of fight choreography and the director of a number of great martial arts films, my favorite being the sublime Iron Monkey. So you’d have really high hopes for True Legend. And you’d be severely disappointed.

The film is meant to be the story of “Beggar So,” the drunken master character well-known in Chinese cinema, and whom Yuen’s father played in three films (two of which the son directed). That connection, plus the fact that this is the first time Yuen Woo-Ping has directed a film in 15 years, suggests the project is personal, which makes its failure all the sadder.

The movie is an incoherent mess, rushing through character and story cliches on the assumption that these will effortlessly make us care about a story that is rambling, ugly and a poorly considered combination of cheap-looking digital effects and “true” legend of one of the “Ten Tigers of Canton.” We’re not given a chance to connect to the characters, and the story is about the destruction, and failure to achieve meaningful redemption, of “Beggar So,” whose likable as hell in his first minutes, and then endures plot-driven mood swings and tediously gets the crap beaten out of him until the audience is exhausted and bored.

The martial arts work is dull to my eyes, none of it inspiring in the way both the deadliest and funniest moments seen in any of Yuen’s major choreographer gigs in the past eleven years. This is the guy who made the action in the Matrix films, Crouching Tiger, Iron Monkey, Kung Fu Hustle and the Kill Bill flicks so compelling. Here it’s all frenetic camera work, frequent slo-mo, and blood, blood, blood. Every time someone gets clocked in the face, the actor spits blood, ever increasing sprays of fake blood that are funny if taken out of the context of the rest of the gore, which is … not as funny.

Finally, there are the cameos by big names from Yuen’s past triumphs: Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine (in his last performance) and Gordon Liu (maybe best known here as Pai Mei in the Kill Bills). Each of them is criminally underused, with Yeoh luminescently gorgeous in her first scene, but reduced to providing a plot convenience and six lines of expository dialogue that any bit player could have delivered. Carradine distinguishes himself by yelling “Get the Chinaman” a lot in his brief, worthless role. Liu’s kinda cool, I guess, taking a back seat in shared scenes with the fairly charming and dynamic Jay Chou (Kato in the recent Green Hornet thing). In sum, the stunt casting disappoints.

There’s really nothing to recommend this film, nothing you haven’t seen better and more coherently elsewhere. It makes two hours feel like four, and gets worse as it goes along. The two guys who walked out halfway through the screening surprised me. “Film’s not that bad,” I thought. Apparently they were psychic, though, because it wasn’t long before I wished I’d gone with them.