In the U.S., Yuen Woo Ping is known as the fight choreographer for movies like the Matrix series, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he’s had a distinguished career as a director of martial-arts epics in his native China, going all the way back to 1978 and the Jackie Chan classic Drunken Master. True Legend is Yuen’s first film as a director in 15 years, and while it offers him a chance to show American audiences what he can do as a filmmaker, it doesn’t exactly make the strongest case for his talents. With a disjointed plot full of martial-arts clichés, Legend comes off less like the work of an old master and more like the mediocre imitation of one.
Some of Yuen’s action sequences are still exciting, though, and he tones down the ethereal, balletic style that has become commonplace in martial-arts movies in favor of something grittier and a little retro (although there’s still plenty of CGI). The appealing middle section of the movie, which takes place in 19th-century China, focuses on warrior Su (Vincent Zhao) planning revenge on his foster brother Yuan (Andy On), who has kidnapped Su’s son after killing Su’s father to avenge his own father’s death. It’s typically overwrought and convoluted, but there is some genuine pathos to Su’s struggle to rebuild his confidence with the unwavering support of his wife Ying (Zhou Xun).
But the showdown between Su and Yuan is anticlimactic, and then the movie goes on for almost 40 more minutes in a completely unrelated direction. The action in the final act is repetitive and dull, and the emotional impact has been lost. Yuen was able to import something exciting and new to American films, but back on familiar ground, all he can do is rehash the past.