A true martial arts legend makes a crappy movie ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A true martial arts legend makes a crappy movie

True Legend
My rating:

Yuen Woo-ping is the man. He's one of the finest martial arts choreographers still working, if not the best, and he's been recognized in both East and West. He can elevate a fight scene into the level of art; a scene that tells a complete story in and of itself, that reveals character, that has its own mood and tone, and is still wildly thrilling. His filmography as action choreographer is as long as my arm, but this humble film critic is especially enamoured of his work in Fist of Legend, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Matrix trilogy. Those movies have some of the best fight scenes ever filmed.

But when it comes to directing a whole movie, Yuen Sifu should really let someone else sit in the chair.

Su Can (Zhao Wen Zhuo) is a respected general in the Qing Imperial army, but gives it all up for a quiet life with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) and son. However, his adopted brother Yuan (Andy On), who has since become a governor, bears a grudge against Su's father (Leung Ka Yan). When Yuan kills his father, Su and Ying barely escape with their lives, leaving their son Little Feng (Li Ze) behind. Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh), a hermit who lives on Beidou Mountain, helps them and gives Ying a job making wine from the herbs she gathers. Meanwhile, Su meets an Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and a God of Wushu (Jay Chou), with whom he duels daily - although they may only be figments of his imagination - to regain his martial skills and rescue his son from the evil Yuan. Oh, and once all that's done with, he fights a bunch of gweilos.

This is gonna be a tough one to review, since we've already had one hopelessly cheesy period kungfu film for CNY. But 14 Blades wasn't as dreary and self-important as this, and it was marginally more competent at telling its story too. For most of its running time, True Legend is yet another iteration of How the Grievously Wronged Kungfu Master Got His Groove Back - nothing we haven't seen before, but competently done with one or two new touches. But then it tacks on a third act that has nothing to do with anything that came before, in which suddenly our hero is battling evil foreigners (Russians this time - at least it's not Japanese) to uphold the pride of Chinese martial arts. Aiyoo, Yuen Sifu, what laa??

Hong Kong just loooooves their pseudohistorical kungfu folk heroes, don't they? We've had Wong Fei Hung, Fong Sai Yuk, Huo Yuanjia, Ip Man, and now Su Can, better known as So Hak Yi or Beggar So. What differentiates this guy from the others is that, well, he's a beggar - no nice kungfu school and legions of reverent students for him, just dirty rags and a serious drinking problem. So one of the new touches is the implication that, what with his hallucinatory sparring sessions with a Wushu God, he may be a few sheep short of a paddock. But this isn't really developed to any effective degree, and a great deal of the blame falls on Zhao Wen Zhuo's shoulders. Why is Zhao, with his undeniable martial skills, not as big a star as Jet Li or Donnie Yen? Because he's a lousy actor.

But another new touch is that the hero's wife, whom you'd normally expect to die in the first act and thus fuel a revenge plot, survives and accompanies him during his exile. This gives Zhou Xun more screentime, which is the smartest thing the movie does. She's really good here, in a role that's far better suited to her talents than Zhao Wei's in 14 Blades. Michelle Yeoh is nothing more than a cameo, but Andy On is an effectively menacing villain, and has some decent fights with Zhao. And then there's Jay Chou. Whose idea was it to cast Jay Freaking Chou as a God of Freaking Wushu? It's not that he doesn't fare well in his fight scenes, it's that he looks ridiculous in the role; and that Shaw-Brothers-meets-Stan-Lee costume doesn't exactly help. Hell, you've already got Gordon Liu in the very same scenes, why do we still need some prettyboy popstar?

Then again, all this is in the movie's good parts. After Su settles things with Yuan, it turns into a whole different movie - a much worse one at that. Zhou Xun is replaced by child actor Li Ze, whose perpetual bawling of "Daaaaaad!" is icepick-to-the-ears annoying. The Wushu God reappears and teaches Su drunken boxing, which here bears a suspicious resemblance to some jammin' b-boy moves. (Oh, is that why Jay Chou is in this thing??) We get a half-hearted retread of the tired old Chinese-hero-upholds-Chinese-pride-against-dastardly-foreigners theme. And then David Carradine shows up! Sadly, this may be one of his last screen appearances, and it's an unworthy send-off for the late actor - he's about as bad as Caucasian actors usually are in Hong Kong kungfu movies.

At least the fighting is decent, which is the least you can expect from a Yuen Woo-ping movie. Although they'd be better if they were better edited; seriously, action editing is a lost art even in Hong Kong, the place that once showed Hollywood how it's done. But what's saddest is the vague sense that Yuen is ripping off other movies that he did fight choreography for - Liu reprises his Pai Mei role from Kill Bill, and the ending recalls Jet Li's climactic fight in Fearless. Yuen Sifu is still a legend in the world of action cinema, and he surely has a few more great movies in him yet. But only if they're directed by, like, real directors.

NEXT REVIEW: The Book of Eli
Expectations: not very high


Anonymous said...

Good review. I just saw that movie and you summed it up very well. Zhao Wen Zhuo looked more like he was acting than fighting in the earlier scenes and the second part of the movie was so random compared to the first. And as much as I like Jay Chou, he did look really weird.