To HK aficionados, this will come as no shock, as the film bears the directorial credit of Yuen Woo Ping. Although known to American audiences as the guy behind the wire-fu choreography of “The Matrix,” “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels,” he’s responsible for the whole of some kick-ass projects in his homeland, including Chan in “Drunken Master,” Jet Li in “Last Hero in China” and Donnie Yen in “Iron Monkey.”
That last one made for one particularly memorable theatrical experience in 2001, and its distinctive, relentless buzz is present in “True Legend.” Set near the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the flick opens with a spectacular attack sequence that sets up Su (Vincent Zhao, “Once Upon a Time in China V”) as our hero, and all those that follow are just as thrilling, if not at times better.
Su’s success ends a few years later, as his jealous brother, Yuan (Andy On, “New Police Story”), turns into a supernaturally infused baddie after perfecting the Five Venom Fists move. With Spawn-like scales and armor sewn into his skin, which has turned a perpetual shade of purplish gray, Juan makes Su’s arm seer and blister, rendering it useless. That’s not so good at a time where everybody knows the martial art of wushu.
Meanwhile, the sniveling sibling is such a badass, he can stick his hands into bowls of live scorpions and spiders — and does. Oh, and there are snakes in his lair. Why’d there have to be snakes? Now looking like a beggar, Su has to relearn fighting. Although it’s not the climactic showdown, the brothers’ best battle takes place as the fall in a well, and then scuttle up and down its circular wall as they trade kicks and punches — each accompanied with that glorious “whoosh” on the soundtrack.
The climax is a no-holds-barred match on an octagonal stage against Killer Anton’s Invincible Wrestlers; Anton is played by the late David Carradine, who makes an unfortunate comment about breaking necks. With nods to “Drunken Master” and all its rip-offs, the scene includes a breakdance move, if I’m not mistaken. Also, a tiger, just because.
Carradine’s not the only genre star power packed into the pic. Vets Gordon Liu (“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”) and Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) turn in small, but fun appearances alongside relative newcomer Jay Chou (“The Green Hornet”). Their investment in the project helps mitigate leveled criticisms one may have — and rightly so — regarding Woo Ping’s overuse of CGI and issues in pacing. Still, his touch is masterful.
Apparently, “True Legend” came out in 3-D on the other half of the globe. I didn’t realize this going in, but it explains the sometimes cartoonish vibrancy the flick exudes. Woo Ping has made some crazy stuff before, but this one seems just slightly overcaffeinated. Fans will get off on the kick, which looks awfully crisp on Blu-ray — even beautiful.
The Blu-ray package promises a free music download inside, via the QR code on the actual disc. Scan that, however, and you’re taken to a content site that reads, frustratingly, “To gain access you must purchase (the) Bluray or DVD. There will be a QR code on the Disc.” Not cool. Especially if the download is an MP3 file of the disc’s music video by The Shadow Bureau, because “Axis of Evil” is a cool, electronic track that sure beats the hell of the genre’s usual go-to tunes of nauseating Cantopop. —Rod Lott