“True Legend” tells the story of Su Qi-Er, a warrior general who retires from battle to marry, have a child, and open a martial arts academy. Complicating matters is the idea that his wife Ying is the sister to his own adopted brother, Yuan Lie. Despite the incestuous nature of this relationship, and the fact that Yuan Lie is impulsive and untrustworthy, Su expects this plan to follow through without a hitch.
He wasn’t counting on Yuan having a separate plan of his own. Turns out Su’s father had taken Yuan into their home after murdering Yuan’s father in battle. The good deed does not excuse him from judgment, and Yuan makes him pay before setting his sights on Su. Turns out, he’s also upset by Su taking Yuan’s sister away from him. Yuan is an angry man, so angry that part of his revenge plan involves tattooing skin armor onto his body. Acupuncture: not an option.
Yuan gives Su the sort of beating you only see in martial arts films, kicking his rear straight into exile, where Su wakes with his wife in the forest. He slowly heals during a peaceful stay with a herb researcher (Michelle Yeoh) who lives alone in the mountains, but the couple cannot help but think of their young child, held hostage by the man with the iron skin.
Crippled by fear more than defeat, Su is ready to abandon his martial arts skills when he sees a vision. Some see inspiration when they hallucinate money. Others dream of the opposite sex. Su sees an old sage accompanied by the mythic God of Wushu. It certainly helps that the sage is actually the seemingly-ageless Gordon Liu (the God of Wushu is a capable, if overmatched, Jay Chou, of “Green Hornet” fame). Su begins to wander into the mountains to train with these mystical beings who understand his hunger for revenge, though Ying claims he is merely imagining things, despite the noticeable battle scars.
Eventually, Su finds the strength to pursue Yuan, and with his wife in tow, he returns, engaging in a battle that earns the title designation. “True Legend” is directed by Yuen Wo-Ping, the legendary fight choreographer behind “Once Upon A Time In China,” “Fist of Legend” and “The Matrix” and, while he hasn’t directed a film since before he found success in Hollywood (his last effort was 1996’s “Iron Monkey 2”), it’s clear that you’re going to get top-notch brawling in a Wo-Ping movie. In a year where, stateside, we’ve gotten “Ip Man 2” and “Legend of the Fist,” “True Legend” does not disappoint in that area.
But then… that third act. “True Legend” is loosely based on a real person, the inventor of the drunken boxing style, so even if plot developments take the story into the realm of the supernatural, you know there’s to be a dollop of reality that sinks in. What’s odd is that this is crammed into an ungainly third act that begins about 80 minutes into the picture, when it seems clear the primary narrative ends. In some ways, it almost feels like the abbreviated start to “True Legend 2,” but a better comparison would be if “Rocky” ended with a truncated, thirty minute version of “Rocky Balboa.” Ironically, after several criticisms over extensive edits, this is the one martial arts picture that would have benefited from the influence of Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein.
Su ends up aging as he enters the world of cage-fighting, brawling with bruisers twice his size, while David Carradine, in one of his final appearances, watches. As the conflicts escalate, the movie fails to make you forget that this guy just had a life-changing showdown with a man who had skin armor. Skin armor, people. It may be stringently conventional thought to rail against knowing what happens to an action hero after he vanquishes the Big Bad, but the third act just becomes bogged down in unfamiliar, unthreatening, faceless thugs, with Su defeating his own personal demons. Specifically the ones for which we had no interest during his battle with Yuan.
For wuxia fanatics, “True Legend” is certainly worth watching, as the martial art sequences, each one varying in style, tempo and location, are a marvel. But the true highlight is Xun Zhou, who plays Yuan as a monster possessed, genuinely sick in the head as he freely threatens women and children, his words dripping with venom at the thought of a revenge so far-reaching that he finds comfort in the truth that he will never be satisfied. Once he exits the narrative, the film feels like there are other places to go, but there is only one direction: down. [C+]