The Review: Yuen Woo-Ping is a name that should be well known to any lovers of Western movies from the last ten years or so, his choreography being key to the fighting styles of The Matrix movies, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. He’s had a much longer career, starting out as an actor and then working steadily as a director up until the mid-Nineties. This is his return to directing after a long break, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that he’s chosen a sweeping historical epic, packed with opportunities to show off the fighting styles he’s become so well known for.
The movie itself falls so neatly into three acts that it’s almost like watching three separate short movies with the same characters, stitched together one after the other. The first is effectively a war movie, with large scale battles and multiple fights taking place on screen, but the second narrows the focus to a single character, Su Can (Vincent Zhao), the general from the first part, and the family conflicts and dangers represented by his former ally and adopted brother Yuan (Xan Zhou), now bent on revenge. Su almost dies at Yuan’s hand, but unbeknown to all but his wife is saved by a reclusive doctor (Michelle Yeoh) and, when he discovers the “God of Wushu” in the nearby countryside, vows to improve his skills to return and confront Yuan once more.
The twists and turns in the narrative structure will feel familiar to anyone who took in Crouching Tiger and its contemporaries in the last decade, with high drama and personal loss being recurrent themes. There is certainly a slightly lighter feel to this, especially around the mid-section, with the God of Wushu sequences being shot in 3D and consequently having an otherworldly feel to them. The consequence of this is that some of the dramatic weight of the rest of the drama feels lost in the process, the whole movie feeling just slightly more lightweight as a consequence, but there’s enough to keep the interest and Yuen doesn’t let the pace flag. The money certainly feels like it’s up there on screen, the first two acts both being sufficient in scope to justify your continued interest.
The final act is when things take a turn for the truly strange. There are a number of familiar faces to Western audiences in the movie, not only Michelle Yeoh but also Jay Chow as the God of Wushu (soon to be seen alongside Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet), and even David Carradine, in one of his last roles as the master of a wrestling arena surrounded by tigers. So if historical martial arts epics with 3D fantasy sequences which culminate in fights with wrestlers above a pit of tigers are your thing, then True Legend is well worth your time. If that last sentence has sent you running for the hills, then I probably can’t blame you, but in this slight curiosity of a movie its the martial arts, as ever, that make it worth the effort.
Why see it at the cinema: Epic vistas, sweeping camera moves, and a large screen allowing you to capture all of the bone-crunching action. The early sequences are packed with detail and will benefit from the size of the cinema screen.
Why see (bits of) it in 3D: As entertaining as anything in the movie was the fact that most people at the screening I went to didn’t realise that the whole movie wasn’t in 3D – there was much embarrassed guffawing when the “put on your glasses” logo appeared before the first fantasy sequence. (That maybe doesn’t say much for other 3D movies, that people couldn’t tell, of course.) The sparing use of 3D and the manner of it’s use actually makes it more effective and complements those sequences well, although to offset the brightness issues of 3D, those sequences have been made very bright – expect to lose sight for a day or two if you inadvertently take off your glasses during these sequences.
The Score: 7/10