"True Legend" is a glorious looking piece of cinema that suffers from an unfortunately equally glaring identity crisis. Is it a historical action drama, a revenge flick, a tale about rising to impossible challenges or maybe just a strange, mythical, drunken fighting kung fu picture with all the trimmings? The answer is a blend of all of the above – and the resulting hard to swallow mixture is disappointingly uneven and tedious.
The film starts off well enough with a captivating staging of a bloody medieval battle that perfectly sets the mood of a dark and brooding wartime. Head military man Su Can decides to forgo a well-earned promotion and step down to pursue a more meaningful life using his skills to teach and spend time with lady love Ying. Her 'chip on his shoulder' brother Yuan, who is also friends with Su Can, then becomes next in line for the job. But Yuan’s anger and bitterness of being second haunts him and upon his return he unleashes his vengeance upon the unsuspecting Su Can, his sister and new child with the aid of a supernatural and deadly darkness known as Five Venom Fists. A beaten, broken and disheveled man, Su Can finds himself at a crossroads and must conjure up his former courage and bravery to bring his family back together again.
Now you may think the story peaks and then ends there, but you’d be wrong – dead wrong. "True Legend" instills a 'single story be damned' scenario, by adding such extras as Su Can fighting with non-existent masters while going mad, having a final showdown with Yuan only to again become demoralized hitting the bottle hard, try to give up his son to keep the wine flowing and even find time to drunkenly fight in a Bloodsport-esk match with WWE and UFC style white guys (strangely lead by David Carradine - out of nowhere!) thrown in for good measure. (Su Can is one busy drunk dude!) "True Legend" frankly doesn’t know what it wants to be.
It was as if the great style by director Yuen Woo Ping was considered to be not enough, so every cliché kung fu and Asian film moment from the last twenty years was inserted just to be on the safe side. And at an almost two hour (feels like three!) running time, the last thing this one needs is new characters and situations being introduced in the fourth act. (See screenwriting 101 guys!) Not to mention that the acting here is pure cheese out of the Shaw Brothers school of bad dubbing with over the top bits (the drunken sorrows of Su Can get horrendously tiresome!), throwaway characters (what exactly was the pull of the shitty non-existent role for a great performer like Michelle Yeoh?!) and even out of place stunt castings. (What the heck is memorable Green Hornet Kato man Jay Chou doing playing a floating Zen master here?!)
What’s most disheartening about the whole debacle is that the film begins with such riveting potential - the glory of battle, the visceral spilling of blood, the touching bond of fellow warriors. But what sadly follows is a soap opera style kung-fu series squeezed into a single film frame so small and mind-numbingly deadly that even Bruce Lee himself couldn’t use his truly legendary fists of fury to break out. Everything but the kitchen sink is a saying – not a motto to build a flick on.