A Drunken Master, by Kyle Anderson
Yuen Woo-Ping is a world-renowned stunt coordinator and fight choreographer. He’s best known in this country for creating the dazzling wire fights in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix, and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In those films, and countless others, Master Yuen has proven to have adeptness for staging amazing, eye-catching action sequences that get the heart racing. Unfortunately, in his new film True Legend, his 28th as a director, he proves that he thinks awesome fights alone can make a good movie.
True Legend is the story of an apparently real life warrior, Su Can, who was the best soldier in the Qing Dynasty. After a particularly impressive battle where he saves the Prince, Su is offered a governorship. As is characteristic of these films, he turns it down in favor of leaving the army and starting his own Wushu school. His wife Ying’s jealous brother, Yuan, ends up getting the promotion and spends the next four years plotting revenge against Su and his father, who we’re told later killed Yuan’s father. When Yuan finally arrives, he is a pale monstrosity with armor sewn into his flesh and deadly venom coursing through his veins. Yuan’s hatred for Su knows no end and, after killing Su’s father, kidnaps his own sister and their son, Little Feng. After a battle where he is badly wounded, Ying takes Su to a remote mountain to recuperate while Yuan imprisons Little Feng.
The rest of the film follows the basic thread of most martial arts movies, where Su has to overcome his injury and his self-doubt to save his family and if the film had chosen to end like this, where narratively it should have, it would have been a passable, if somewhat bland, adventure movie. That isn’t the case, however, as there is about a half-hour long epilogue wherein Su, now a wandering, drunken hobo, and Little Feng venture to the Russian/Chinese border where Su must help an old friend defeat a cadre of Russian wrestlers in a fight to the death. Here, Su uses (for the first time I guess) the ancient art of drunken boxing.
This seems obviously tacked on only for the purposes of telling us that he did, indeed, invent drunken boxing. An even halfway skilled screenwriter could have woven this piece of the story into the film proper and not needed to stick this bit on at the end. And whether or not, in the timeline of the real guy, this legitimately happened after the first part of the story, when telling a narrative, one needs to contour to the ebbs and flows of structure. There are also plot points throughout the film that transcend fantasy into pure silliness.
There are a number of cameo appearances from very notable veterans of martial arts films including Gordon Liu, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine (in his final screen appearance) and huge star Jay Chou, who was recently seen as Kato in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet. They are, unfortunately, almost totally wasted in these tiny roles and, while their characters could have been interesting, were usually nothing more than plot contrivances or exposition dumpers. Chou gets to the most to do and displays some impressive fighting and acrobatics, however they don’t much impact the story.
This is Yuen Woo-Ping’s first film as a director since 1996 and it shows. The non-fighting scenes are sometimes laughably melodramatic and at least three times a character drops to their knees and cries some variation of “NOOOOOOOO!!!!” While the fight scenes are impeccably choreographed, they are filmed in such a way that we don’t get to experience the full effect of them, with too many frenetic cuts and odd close-up angles. It gets to be the law of diminishing returns with them. The opening action sequence is incredible and worthy of a look, but once we get to the over-long drunken boxing scene, I was bored. There’s really only so many ways to watch a guy get punched in the face.