Friday, May 13, 2011

True Legend: The Drunken Fist Creation Story

It is an ancient form of Wushu equally derived from divine inspiration and inebriation. Incorporating the swaying looseness and erratic unpredictability of a good bender, the “Drunken Fist” discipline is probably most closely associated with Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films. Yet according to lore, it was Beggar So who first developed the deceptive Wushu practice. Some of the greatest figures of martial arts cinema tell his creation story in Yuen Woo-ping’s True Legend (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Su Can is one of the Imperial army’s greatest warriors. After rescuing his patron prince in a daring raid, Su declines an appointment as regional governor, requesting his resentful half-brother Yuan Lie serve in his place. In retrospect, this turns out to be a mistake. While Su quietly retires to study Wushu in its purest form, Yuan masters the dark mystical technique of the Five Deadly Venoms.

There’s a little bit of West Virginia or Woody Allen in this family, considering Su married his step-brother’s sister Xiao Ying. Still seeking to avenge his birth father against the family he was forcibly adopted into, Yuan very nearly kills Su. However, Xiao whisks her battered husband away to the mountain retreat of the beautiful and mysterious Dr. Yu, leaving behind their son Feng as a hostage. Regrettably, Su appears defeated, both in body and in spirit. After a prolonged bout of drunken self-pity, a series of otherworldly encounters with the God of Wushu spurs Su to begin training again. Yet, to Xiao’s eyes, a delusional Su is simply beating himself seven shades of black and blue.

It is a joy to see Michelle Yeoh back in a grand genre epic, even if she does not have any fight scenes to perform as Dr. Yu. With the gorgeous Zhou Xun more than holding down the dramatic end of the film as Xiao, you pretty much ought to have the price of admission right there. Adding in colorful appearance by genre superstars like Jay Chou, Cung Le, Gordon Liu, and David Carradine (in one of his final screen roles) makes Legend sound like an all-time monster.

Unfortunately, Su has to be one of the most self-indulgent, angst-ridden heroes you will find in martial arts cinema. His boozy decline into Beggar So is all too slow and depressing. Also mildly distracting, much like Ip Man 2, Legend concludes with a showdown between Beggar So and the hulking white devil wrestlers hired by Carradine’s blood-sport impresario in scenes that also appear tailor-made to stoke Chinese xenophobia.

Legend marks Yuen Woo-ping’s directorial return after rocking the fanboy universe as the fight choreographer for the Matrix films, Kill Bill, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Since he helmed Jackie Chan’s original 1978 Drunken Master, Yuen clearly has an affinity for the style. Indeed, there are some spectacular fight sequences (though ironically, the pre-drunken opening rescue mission might be the best). Unfortunately, the connective scenes are often rather draggy (when not enlivened by the radiant Zhou).

Easily divisible into Su and So halves, Legend is definitely a film of its parts rather than a sweeping whole. Some of those parts are indeed quite satisfying (Yeoh, Zhou, a spectacular fight scene in a well), but ultimately the film is just pretty good instead of great. For those of us with an enduring affection for those kinds of component-pieces, Legend opens today (5/13) in New York at the Regal E-Walk.