Remember what Chinese martial-arts movies used to be like, before Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero? The no-holds-barred action, the over-the-top storytelling? The Daoist laughter? Yuen Woo-Ping sure seems to. His new movie True Legend is pure old-school awesomeness.
Yuen, of course, is the guy who did the stunts for The Matrix and countless other classics. And True Legend, in select theaters today and more theaters next week, does have some of the most mind-blowing wirework and beautifully choreographed violence I've seen in ages. Plus it's just hair-raisingly insane, and it wears its giant heart on its sleeve.
I should probably admit, right here, that I haven't kept up with Hong Kong and Chinese movies as well in the past decade as I did in the 1990s. So there may be other recent films that are just as nuts, and just as brilliantly violent, as True Legend, and I just haven't seen them. To me, though, it felt like the return of something I hadn't seen since the era of Tsui Hark and countless other creators in the 1980s and 1990s.
True Legend is loosely based on fact: It's the story of Su Can, a great general in the 1860s, who's like a one-man army. (An early sequence where Su Can and a few comrades rescue a kidnapped prince is just a total action-movie wet dream.) Su Can has everything: a beautiful sweetheart, brothers in arms, and a dream of opening the best martial arts school in China.
But it all comes crashing down, due to the evil of the Five Venom Fists. The movie's plot is almost too complicated to narrate, but in a nutshell, the Five Venom Fists is a style of kung-fu that turns you into an unstoppable quasi-zombie. Literally, your skin gets pale and undead-looking, and stuff. Su Can's father, we learn, was forced to kill a man who had gone too far with the Five Venom Fists, killing a ton of innocent people in the process. Now that man's son, who's also the brother of Su Can's sweetheart, has perfected the Five Venom Fists and he wants revenge. The villain, Yuan, has also sewn fancy armor into his skin, so he'll be doubly invincible. And he has a whole army, as well as a crack team of ninjas, on his side.
What follows is basically the classic story of the noblest person on Earth, Su Can, getting broken down over and over and getting stronger and stronger as a result. He has a weird spiritual experience, where he meets the God of Wushu (in a sort of weird CG landscape that feels oddly reminscent of Sucker Punch) and has to basically go insane to defeat the God of Wushu and perfect his skills. But even that isn't enough to save Su Can for further heartbreaks, and eventually he is forced to – wait for it – invent the drunken style of kung-fu. Yes, he is the original Drunken Master.
Let's recap here: zombie kung-fu master with ninja assassins on his side challenges our hero, who has to defeat a supernatural entity to become good enough to win out. And later, he becomes the Drunken Master. Oh, and did I mention his final nemesis in the film is the late, great David Carradine in his last ever role? And Michelle Yeoh is a wine-making doctor who saves his life? If the preceding paragraph doesn't fill you with a fierce desire to see this film, then you should probably just go see Bridesmaids or Priest instead.
And yeah, there is absolutely nothing subtle about this film – when it's silly, it's monumentally silly. When it's tugging at your heartstrings (which it does often) it basically grabs hold of them and wrenches with its venom fists. When it's lecturing you about nineteenth century European imperialism in China, you're not left in any doubt on the matter.
But like I said, this movie has a ginormous heart. And if the sequence where Su Can's sweetheart (now his wife) jumps into a waterfall to save his broken body — and then makes a makeshift stretcher and drags him all the way up a mountain to look for a doctor – doesn't make you melt a bit, then you're just dead inside.
True Legend is about two hours long, but it never feels slow at all, even when we're delving into Su Can's fall from grace. And in a world of movies about heroes who start out arrogant and immature and have to learn humility or selflessness, it's kind of great to see a movie about a hero who starts out completely noble and selfless, and then has to learn to be kind of crazy. I haven't seen Priest yet, but I pretty much guarantee True Legend is a better movie.