True Legend Movie Review: Magical Realism Martial Arts Mystifies

A refreshing break from those cookie cutter action blockbusters that have different names but are essentially all the same movie, True Legend is China’s continuing bold venture into superhero turf, but strictly their way. Though the story does pale in comparison to the kick-butt choreography, probably in search of a broader lost-in-translation audience beyond China’s borders.

In a testosterone fueled narrative combining as well sudsy emotions and heartfelt humor – likely laced with the contrasting telltale romantic pen of screenwriter Christine To – Vincent Zhao is Su, a famed warrior and family man during the late 19th century. Whose serenity is destroyed when his dangerous, likewise combat-gifted stepbrother Yuan (Andy On) turns up. It seems that Su’s father killed Yuan’s dad and then adopted the boy, and Yuan has been seething with a compulsion for revenge ever since.

And after Yuan kills his adoptive father and tosses Su into the sea, with Su’s distraught wife Ying (Zhou Xun) diving in after him, the couple retreats to the countryside where Su loses his self-confidence and descends into alcoholism. But when longing for his young son, now in the custody of brutal Yuan, overcomes his despair, Su gets back into fighting form to return and retrieve the boy. Even if the daily regimen entails doing battle with invisible supernatural opponents, when not beating up trees.

The combat sequences are nothing short of spectacular, as conveyed with the gifted hand of that never disappointing master in his own right, filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, The Matrix trilogy). And even if the gravity-defying airborne moves are way beyond believable, venturing into never less than artistically mesmerizing, mystically wild territory that might be termed magical realism martial arts.

The comedic touches are also splendid, humanizing this ridiculously invincible warrior with self-destructive emotional flaws. Though Su’s habitual alcoholism that spontaneously morphs into triumphant novelty martial arts moves dubbed Drunken Fist – not unlike Johnny Depp’s invincible drunken pirate – along with a far too fleeting cameo by the late David Carradine as an angry and exploitative gladiator-fixated foreigner, are beyond silly.

Indomina Media/Focus Features International

Rated R

3 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.