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Back in the days of New York yore there was a land teeming with all manner of vice and depravity called Times Square; an area so sleazy and perilous that those unarmed to the teeth were advised to stay away, day or night.  Due to rampant criminal activity, tourists only visited a Times Square cinema as a test of courage.  Besides pornography, one of the most featured film genres played in Times Square venues was kung fu films; on any given week, double features of Hong Kong action could be experienced in all their dubbed glory as one dodged the rats and junkies in the aisles.  Since the Disney-fication of the area in the late 1980s, audiences havenít truly been able to experience the wonders of classic tales of flying warriors, Shaolin monks and assorted Asian good guys chopping, kicking, slicing and dicing on missions of righteousness, loudly cheered on by a receptive (mostly conscious) audience.  Well, my dears, for one shining moment in a Times Square movie theatre, those dingy, dangerous days of old were revived as an enthusiastic crowd nearly as questionable as one from the pre-gentrified age gathered to view a stunning mix of Old and New School kung fu in Yuen Woo-pingís True Legend.

A venerated warrior fighting for his king, all Su wants to do after winning his last impossible battle is go home, marry the girl of his dreams and settle down.  Generously handing his accolades and an appointment as governor to his foster brother, Yuan, Su lives a life of domestic bliss until the day when his kindness push kicks him in the backside.  A decades-long grudge Yuan has held against Suís family is finally revealed. Yuan has learned a monstrous fighting technique and sewn dark armor onto his very skin in his effort to destroy all that his loving former brother holds dear and steals Suís only son.  Suís faithful wife, Ying, who is also YuanĎs blood sister follows her man into exile, nursing him back to health after Yuanís Five Venom Fists cripples one of Suís arms.  The pair hides away on a mountain, helping a herbalist and part-time vintner.  Su loves this job a little too much and the once-honourable warrior becomes a bit of lush, which might explain his seeing things that arenít really there.  In Suís case, these hallucinations would consist of a pair of deities that scoff at Suís squandered talent. Shamed into action, Su begins to train against the untouchable God of Wushu, with musical accompaniment by the bearded, jolly Old Sage.  The training turns Suís life around and Ying is glad to see the change in him, but worries that all this improvement might be the unhealthy result of being pent-up in the mountains with an enormous jug of grain alcohol as a best mate.  Doubts aside, Su finally matches the skill of the Wushu god and returns to face Yuan and claim his son.  Unfortunately for Su, itís not like old Irontats (- feel free to sub that third vowel at any time) has been sitting around playing tiddlywinks.  Yuan has delved even further into the dark martial arts and kung fu insanity has made him even more vicious.  His battle against Su has consequences on both sides, leaving Su and his son adrift, wandering rudderless through Asia until Su must once again find what is really important in life.

Hereís a movie that really should have been shown in 3D.  The spectacular fighting sequences that kick off practically from the opening titles would have been unbearably mind-blowing if the film was presented the same as it was in China.  This is huge missed opportunity.  Martial arts cinema legend Yuen Woo-ping directs the amazing kung fu action, using classical and newer mixed techniques.  There is the opening sequence where Suís men infiltrate an enemy camp to save their prince with sword and arrows flying everywhere.  Suís multidimensional training sessions with the God of Wushu are gorgeous and literally out of sight.  A scene where Yuan and Su battle in a well, trying to kill each other while keeping from hitting the snake-covered bottom is unforgettable.  Yuen moves the camera around in a more modern (though not necessarily more effective) way, using both beautiful natural landscapes and fantastical CGI worlds, while keeping the time-tested, audience-approved wire-fu and puffs of dust that appear when one enemy punches another.

Andy On is fabulous as the evil Yuan and I predict will start a whole new trend in glamourous human mutilation.  Onís increasing greenness as he ingests more venom into his body isnít nearly as stunning as his model-gaunt cheekbones and snarling, bravura kung fu moves.  As Suís faithful wife Ying, Zhao Xun is luminous as the quiet tower of strength, determined to keep her family together at any cost.  As the God of Wushu, Jay Chou displays the star quality barely hinted at in this yearís Green Hornet.  In his long white wig, golden tiara and regal bearing, one wonders if the filmís creators hadnít had the Japanese anime character, Sessho-maru from the Inu Yasha series in mind?  There are extended cameos of Michelle Yeoh as the mountain herbalist and Gordon Liu as the cackling, mystical Old Sage and I wish there had been more of both.  I could have done with a lot less of the ear-piercing screams of the kid playing Suís son; a cry so shrill it should have been used as a weapon.  The late American star and martial arts aficionado David Carradine makes one of his final appearances as a Western fight promoter whoíll break his own rule book to ensure his brawlers win against the Chinese; which leads me to another sad point.

True Legendís truly tragic note is its last act.  Up until then, the story of Suís fall and rise against the evil, insane Yuan has the audience exhausted with its thrilling action and emotional for Su and his family.  It would have been right to end the film there, even on a possibly melancholy note.  Instead we are given a terrible, tacked-on further adventure that reduces the great martial arts film that weíve been experiencing for the past hour to an also-ran that copies any number of better movies, from Jet Liís Fearless (from 2006, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping) to Donnie Yenís Ip Man (2008).  We watch Su climb back into an eighty-proof jug and get swept into a staged fight with a bunch of very large, China-phobic foreigners.  Before that battle, we have a little of 1966ís Come Drink with Me -- and thereby the cafť scene from 2000ís Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (choreographed by Yuen) -- and a bunch of 1978ís seminal Drunken Master (directed by Yuen), as Su is once again favoured by the fighting gods who teach him to put his inebriation to good use.  Itís all artless regurgitation of better films and the plagiarism of the directorís own work threatens to ruin every good thing that came before.

True Legend is absolutely worth seeing on big screen with the noisiest, most into-it crowd you can find.  Itís a wonderful combination of the best of Old School kung fu cinema and new techniques and technology.  Pity that the filmís terrible, tacked-on ending keeps True Legend from being truly legendary.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 13th, 2011





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