Fans of the martial arts genre would likely first notice Vincent Zhao's burst into the scene opposite Jet Li no less, when the latter was at his prime in a series of films, meeting a formidable exponent in Zhao since both are prized martial arts winners from China, in a memorable duel under a stage in Fong Sai Yuk, bent low and executing lightning quick moves. While Zhao's entrance was a villainous one, his career somehow never stepped up, and seemed a little bit like Donnie Yen's, destined to find relative success toward the later part of his career.
No offense meant, but save for the rarely seen and broodingly dark Blade, directed by Tsui Hark, Zhao has somehow languished as a backup. Everyone knows how well he can carry off a martial arts duel, and wooden acting shouldn't be a barrier to making a kung fu movie, but somehow the opportunities only came when he had to step in (for Jet Li) as Wong Fei Hung when Li reportedly fell out with Tsui Hark, and step in again in iconic roles such as Storm Warrior's Cloud (complete with ridiculous hair since we associate Zhao with a balder Manchu pate), when obviously the television series of the film couldn't rope in Aaron Kwok and Ekin Chen when the budget ensured Sonny Chiba came onboard. Film roles became few and far between, and his career seemed stuck in television. Until now when this Yuen Woo Ping directed film decided to cast him in the lead role as the legendary Su Chan, or Beggar Su, founder of the Drunken Fist technique.
Chinese martial arts films have no lack of material to adapt, with folk heroes and legendary characters making that leap from history to film, with the latest being Ip Man, and we all know how well that turned out for Donnie Yen. In fact, I'd like to think True Legend provided the perfect opportunity for Vincent Zhao to shine, especially since his Su Chan does battle using a vast array of weapons (some real, some CG-ed), and his Beggar Su, well, executing his famous technique. From the get go the film is action packed almost all the way, battling it out on some amazingly created landscapes such as dark underground dungeons, a deep well, atop some mean looking mountainous statues, and in a gladiatorial arena.
As this version of the story goes, it's about the downfall of Su Chan and his transformation of Beggar Su. As one of the Imperial Guards, Su Chan gains favour with the Prince for his many successful exploits, the most recent being a rescue mission, but he has a higher calling in life, deciding to dedicate his life to his family, the opening of a martial arts school, and the seeking of a higher form of martial arts. However his sworn brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) decides to exact revenge because of the sins of their fathers, and soundly defeats Su Chan because of his mastery of a deadly black arts called the Five Venom Palm, which comes complete with an extreme creation of a hand-sewn armour into his body.
In any case, True Legend is actually two stories in one. The first story tells the portion of Su Chan's transformation to Beggar Chan, which is split into 3 acts, the first which is the obligatory background story, then followed by his recovery and training, ending off with revenge which provided a full load of action upon action. The second part however turned out to be a rehash of Fearless and whichever film that had been set in the Chinese era of the onslaught of foreign powers, and an arena is used to settle differences. The narrative though still came through as choppy with scenes that seemed a little out of place based on some questionably straightforward editing to splice scenes together, but the one that takes the cake happens to be the irritating edits to the more brutal scenes in the second half of the film. Fearless was rated NC16 and the fights, especially killing blows, were left intact. With a PG rating for this, expect plenty of little bits to be snipped off, which was really disturbing as edits were made every few bloody seconds, no thanks to Beggar Su having to settle a Royal Rumble type of battle. So you have now been warned.
There are however some positives to be taken away from the film, and that comes from the array of stars who got attached to the project. Zhou Xun is a fine actress, and her presence here provided that well needed contrast of acting ability compensating for the lack thereof in Zhao's, starring as Su Chan's wife Ying, the pillar of strength, confidence and hope. Andy On played Yuan Lie with enough creepiness and ruthlessness that he may be one of the more memorable martial arts villains amongst recent kung fu films, adding to that his treading the extremely thin line of incest as well with Ying, in wanting to be together forever with her.
But it's the supporting cast of a notable who's who in the Chinese martial arts arena, that had me excited. Imagine having the likes of Gordon Liu (as Old Sage), the late David Carradine and Michelle Yeoh (as Physician Yu) all in one film, and more exasperatingly, none of them had anything remotely “kung fu” to do, save for floating atop grasslands, and Yeoh even being cast as a healer. Each of them, being in martial arts or related films for a significant time in their respective careers, don't get to do what they're famed for. Instead, a lot of martial arts fighting went to Jay Chou (as God of Martial Arts!!), which I suppose could have served as training ground prior to this Kato role in The Green Hornet. To give him credit, Chou still has what it takes to deliver his martial arts moves quite convincingly, and that's basically all that he does, though bound to elicit a chuckle or two for his ridiculous get up.
Something that is a little more strange, is how acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang got his name in the acting credits as a pickpocket, but a character which didn't appear in the movie proper at all, opting instead to have a scene being featured for a few seconds during the end credit role, which seemed more like a deleted scene meant for the DVD. Only time will tell on this aspect, and made it seem that To Chi-long's screenplay contained dispensable elements, as do a few missteps that made its way on screen.
It's been a long while since Yuen Woo Ping helmed a film as a director, and here he applied plenty of wire-fu liberally to craft a film that provided for some fantastical elements in its martial arts. Despite the hard hitting action, ultimately it was let down by a less than coherent storyline, and the distributors here who opted for a lower rating to entice the holiday crowd, butchering the only saving grace of the film which are the fight sequences.