1861, and in China there was great turmoil thanks to invading countries and internal strife tearing the nation apart. Caught up in this was Su Can (Zhao Wenzhou), a trusted right hand man of Colonel Ma (Guo Xioadong) along with his stepbrother Yuan (Andy On), whose sister Ying (Zhou Xun) Su had married and had a son with. These two step-siblings were fearless battlers, and when the Colonel sought to take a mountain stronghold from one of the insurgents, they both were there to ensure he went some way to achieving his goal by cutting a swathe through the enemy and throwing a fair few from the cliffs. What Su didn't know, however, was Yuan was not happy at all, with his own plans...
Yuen Woo-Ping made a return to the director's chair after a decade and a half away with True Legend, an account of an actual historical figure who laid claim to developing the technique of martial arts made famous by Jackie Chan in his Drunken Master movies. Yuen had kept busy with his fight choreography in the intervening years, regarded as second-to-none in that field in the modern era, so this revival of his directing career was much anticipated, though when the results were viewed, not everyone was happy with what he had concocted. Certainly there was little wrong with his stylings of combat, but he had entered the world of computer graphics with undue enthusiasm.
At least for the traditionalists, who felt the wildly swooping camera and impossible moves and weaponry were a step too far when they were used to Yuen's work standing or falling by the quality of two or more people knocking seven bells out of each other. Perhaps the issue was that, as with a lot of East Asian CGI, it made no attempt to disguise what it was, and that jarred with the audience not used to what could often go either way, as entertainingly over the top or too much to accept in any seriousness. Certainly there had been a charm to the in camera special effects or animations that had been part of the more fantastical end of the Hong Kong market in decades past.
The plot, or rather plots, maybe did not help either, as a very familiar amalgam of bits and pieces of many a kung fu movie from the history of the form, mixing the fantasy aspect with the historical biopic, the former excused because our hero was apparently imagining his encounters with wise old sage Gordon Liu and his godlike partner Jay Chou. He had reached that point because Yuan had started an insurgency of his own, killing Su's father for the crime of killing Yuan's own father when he was little, and trying to assassinate Su in the process; he gets away in a fast-flowing river, followed by wife Ying, but their little boy has to be left behind to be brought up by his cruel, possibly insane uncle. How insane is he? He's had armour stitched to his body to make certain he can never be injured.
Obviously some showdown or other was on the cards, but only after a number of years (!) while Su can build up the strength in his arm which Yuan has poisoned, because as well as the armour he has made himself toxic with animal venom. Surely this man is invincible? Let's not go into that for fear of spoilers, but there was an episodic structure to True Legend that had room for guest stars like Michelle Yeoh to appear for a few scenes and then be promptly forgotten about, but also an entire last act that didn't have very much to do with what had gone before other than sharing a couple of characters, as if Yuen had wanted a sequel but was only allowed to include it at the end of his work here. It was, as was increasingly the case, another Kickboxer-esque tournament, with David Carradine included, in one of his many final roles, as the manager of the Western bruisers deemed unbeatable until Su meets them, as long as he gets hammered on drink. For all this lack of focus and feeling of distraction, there was enough here that entertained, mostly thanks to the fighting. Music by Shigeru Umebayashi.
Chinese director whose skill at staging electrifying martial arts has made him one of the most sought after fight choreographers in the world. Woo-ping made his directing debut in 1978 with the Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, following it the same year with Chan's hugely popular Drunken Master. His brand of fast-moving martial arts direction was a breath of fresh air compared to the more staid style of many of his peers and until the mid-90s turned in pretty much a film every year, sometimes two or three, including Tiger Cage, Jet Li's Tai-Chi Master and Iron Monkey.