Drunken boxing is probably the most entertaining form of martial arts to watch. Jackie Chan defined it on screen in Drunken Master and took it to the next level in Drunken Master II. A few other artists have tried it but now master choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping is going back to drunken fist with all his decades of experience behind him and modern filmmaking tools at his disposal.

More after the jump...

Yuan (Zhou Xun) and Su (Vincent Zhao) are soldiers together until Su leaves and Yuan fights for another five years. Yuan returns as a monster with armor embedded in his skin and a lethal venom punch. Su has to train extra hard to defeat Yuan and repair the arm poisoned in an earlier fight with Yuan, and eventually he develops drunken fist style. You get to learn Su’s motivations in life and martial arts, then see him apply them to the new style.

The story goes further than you think a martial arts movie would. There’s a good twist on the “training for revenge” tale and there’s more in the story than that simple plot. Sort of like Ip Man, where it was about his dojo and then about surviving the post-war depression. Maybe this is a postmodern phase of Hong Kong cinema where they’re exploring bigger themes with martial arts. Or it’s just a coincidence that there are two outsid the box martial arts movies in recent years.

I still maintain that all I want from a martial arts movie is good fights. I’m sorry, Master Woo-Ping. I know the story means a lot to you, and it’s a great story. It probably would be a strong enough story for a straight drama, but it does have lost of the fights we love.

The choreography is classic Woo-Ping. Fighters fly on wires, strike with fast hands, kick high, hold impossible poses and pull on a variety of weapons. He still invents fights I’ve never seen before, using geography and space like a total original. Zhou and Zhao are master fighters executing Woo-Ping’s moves. There are two epic climactic fights and three or four more sequences as good as The Matrix or Crouching Tiger fights.

The choreography is not limited to fighting. The strategic way soldiers cross a bridge is awesome. Characters swing on vines and there’s a little bit of walking on tree tops too. The segment on Su’s rebuilding his poisoned arm is like 36th Chamber of Shaolin hand exercises. That’s what you do when insurance won’t cover physical therapy.

There is more CGI in True Legend. That’s not what I want from a Yuen Woo-Ping movie, or any martial arts film (see Ong Bak 3 review), but these effects look real if that’s how Woo-Ping wanted to convey epic locations.  There may be CGI elements to the battles but there’s still a real martial artist dodging and striking.

Michelle Yeoh doesn’t have much to do. David Carradine has a cameo, but does not fight. It’s the Su and Yuan show and they perform with the creativity comparable to the best of Yuen Woo-Ping’s work.