I don't know how much of TRUE LEGEND is either `true' or which is more `legend', but I found the end result of Director Yuen Woo Ping's work to present the story as an incomplete parable - one where perhaps the viewer can draw inspiration from to seek out answers to questions regarding martial arts history - but certainly not a `definitive work.' Or, at least, I wouldn't hope so. I can only suspect that, if this is based on true events, there may be more story here than what made it to the screen this time around. While TRUE LEGEND has moments of great entertainment, it felt only half-baked to me, a somewhat mixed bag of effective acting, tremendous fighting, and excellent choreography. And I couldn't help from wondering what a more accomplished director may've been able to do with the material.
The biggest detraction to TRUE LEGEND is that the end result actually feels more like one, big, sprawling combination of two smaller, incomplete halves. By the conclusion, I found myself wondering if the project had originally started out as two films - a first flick with a planned sequel - that, for budgetary considerations, were merged together. The first half runs about one hour and ten minutes, and it deals with Su Can's conflict with a vengeful brother, Yuan; the second half runs about forty minutes, and it explores Su Can's nearly-accidental "discovery" of fighting which prompts him to modify his Wushu style combat into `the Drunken Fist' style. I say "nearly-accidental" because that's how, narratively, it's structured, with Su Can happening across a demonstration of this new style.)
On reflection, it's easy to see that the first half has plenty of meat-and-bones, though I'm not entirely certain as to how the film could've been expanded despite the fact that the lovely Michelle Yeoh was tremendously under-used here. Perhaps much of her character was left on the cutting room floor? There's no way to tell. Comparatively, the second half is spent almost entirely with fighting as Su Can finds himself battling (to the death!) China's invaders in scenes vaguely reminiscent of territory already explored spectacularly in IP MAN. Of course, the fight choreography is incredible - TRUE LEGEND arguably contains some of the best hand-to-hand contact put to film - but the story suffers as a consequence. These two halves are introduced and bridged by graphics which serve to `fill in the gaps' between Su Can's filmed adventures; it's a serviceable technique ... it just isn't all that interesting.
It's worth mentioning that one of the greatest strengths of the film - aside from the martial arts, of course - is the talent of the actors. As the Su Can, leading man Man Cheuk Chiu brings not only tremendous physical prowess to the role but also he almost exudes a classic `leading man' charisma; when he's onscreen, he owns the screen, and everything accompanying him bends to his obvious charm. As the nefarious Yuan Lie, Andy On snarls his way through scene after scene, doing his best to match Su Can's graciousness with equal parts venom; these two men are brilliantly paired for the respective roles of `good' versus `evil', and the film benefits greatly from their opposing chemistry. Xun Zhou is suitably lovely and demure as Su Can's wife and sister to Yuan Lie; she's photographed beautifully and is clearly seen as the inspiration to these two opposing forces. Like Helen of Troy, it's not hard to see how her loveliness brought these two men into conflict. The remainder of the players all perform suitably, though some feel underused (as was the aforementioned Michelle Yeoh), but they're most inconsequential to the film's narrative focus.
All in all, TRUE LEGEND is entertaining. Throughout, it's smartly photographed, well-staged, and flows gracefully - like a martial arts routine - from start to finish. It just felt more than a bit incomplete to me. I would rather have enjoyed a greater exploration of these characters - perhaps a handful more of the subtle moments explored between husband and wife Su Can and Yuen Ying - which may've ended up on the cutting room floor or were deemed unnecessary to the fight pace set by the film. A few other scenes could've pushed the creative envelope, and they could've gone a long way toward honoring the `truth' and `legend' implied by the film's title.