Yuen Woo-ping, a venerable director in his own right before freelancing as action choreographer on martial-arts blockbusters like “Kill Bill,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Matrix” trilogy, returns as full-fledged helmer after a 15-year absence with “True Legend,” the saga of a Qing general turned “drunken wushu” master. Pic’s many satisfyingly kinetic action sequences and strong thesping (particularly by femme lead Zhou Xun) outweigh its uneven scripting and occasional ill-advised forays into CGI. Opening May 13 in limited release, “Legend” reps a welcome comeback for fans but boasts little crossover appeal; it tanked on local release last year.
After his daring mountainside rescue of a captured prince, Gen. Su Can (Vincent Zhao) turns down a proffered governorship to live peacefully with his wife Ying (Zhou) and open a wushu school, recommending his adoptive brother, Yuan (Andy On), for the passed-on post.
Five years later, a spiteful Yuan, with protective metal scales sewn to his skin, employs the infamous “five venom fists” technique to slaughter Su’s entire clan, thus settling an old ancestral score. He tosses a poisoned Su in the raging river and spares only Ying, who is also Yuan’s sister. Plunging into the water after her husband, Ying rescues him and lugs his unconscious body over mountains to safety with reclusive healer Yu (Michelle Yeoh).
After years of drunken discouragement, a fully recuperated Su finally begins to train seriously for his confrontation with Yuan. He goes off daily for mist-enshrouded bouts with the God of Wushu (Jay Chou) in elaborate CGI-enhanced fight sequences that read almost like a sendup of the whole idea of green-screen: while Su comes home every night exultantly bearing combat scars, healer Yu claims there is no one else on the mountain, convinced that Su is going insane.
But nothing reads ambiguously about Su’s faceoffs with the evil Yuan, including a fantastic skirmish up and down the sides of a snake-filled circular well. Yuan, sporting the ashen pallor and blackened veins that come from plunging one’s hands in bowls crawling with snakes and scorpions, loses the battle but wins the war, destroying that which Su prizes most.
The pic then skips years (and ditches tonal consistency) to find Su a drunken beggar accompanied by his faithful son and obliviously practicing the spectacular art of drunken boxing, leading to a lethal showdown spearheaded by a thoroughly dishonorable type (David Carradine, in one of his last roles).
Two sequences, together totaling about 20 minutes, were shot in 3D, with audiences required to don and doff glasses on signal. The U.S. version eschews that particular gimmick.