No one watches martial-arts movies to learn lessons. Most of the time, any focus on drama beyond barebones coherence only ends up as an energy drain, distracting from the visceral immediacy of flying fists and vanquished foes. It’s because of these precepts that a film like True Legend, while routinely failing as a narrative exercise, can emerge unscathed on other fronts, succeeding as a pretty good meat-and-potatoes beat ‘em up despite even the basic grammar of the action scenes being riddled with problems.
The film demonstrates how little use it has for plot mechanics almost immediately, charging from a busy nocturnal siege, during which a band of warriors rescues their soon-to-be-executed general, right on to the next big set piece. A different movie might have spent its entire length examining the motivations that cause second-fiddle Yuan (Andy On) to turn against his more successful brother Su (Vincent Zhao). True Legend just turns Yuan’s skin ashy and tints his eyes, instantly transforming him into a villainous, poison-fisted demon marauder.
Unfortunately, the sketchiness that fuels this kind of transformation signals more than just a forthright dedication to getting down to business. True Legend‘s fight scenes, while hugely conceived and often fabulously staged, often dip into joylessness. Employing a catch-all style that melds Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-style acrobatics with copious use of showy slow motion, they often feel more concerned with technology and spectacle than martial-arts basics, a quality that disrupts the balletic course of the action and grinds the pacing to a halt.
This isn’t to say True Legend doesn’t at times fulfill in its stated goals. For the most part, it’s a lean, busy product that strings along bits of recognizable plot matter (a murdered father, a kidnapped wife, a threatened child) as netting for the action blowouts that constitute most of its length. The core story matters so little here that it mostly wraps up after the first hour, moving into a long epilogue in a completely different setting, encompassing Russian wrestlers and a David Carradine cameo. Opting for craziness over coherence, True Legend at least expends its energy in the right place, a style that makes it a pleasantly watchable popcorn flick despite across the board flaws.