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Thrilling fight scenes can’t save messy ‘Legend’

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There aren’t many action directors with the chops of Woo-ping Yuen. His martial arts sequences are not only exciting, but they’re also choreographed with the artful beauty of an MGM musical.

You saw his work in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" for Ang Lee and martial-arts classics like "Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow" and "Iron Monkey" under his own directorship. But he hasn’t helmed a film since the mid-’90s, and "True Legend" can be seen as a master’s comeback.

Except it isn’t.

It is a big-budget Chinese production and also the first big movie filmed in China in 3-D. It was also a failure in China and lost millions there. Because of the 3-D? Perhaps. But more likely because the movie is a mess.

The comparison to musicals is warranted. Essentially, in musicals, you bide time until the music or dancing starts, and you see a martial-arts movie the same way. The action sequences in "True Legend" are mostly fabulous. Yuen can still sketch out a fight that is not only brutal but has beauty as well.

"True Legend" is the story of a retired Qing dynasty general named Su, who loves his wife and kid and the study of Wushu fighting, pretty much in that order. He has a nasty adopted brother, Yuan, who has mastered a kind of spider-venom martial arts and also has armor sewn directly onto his body.

Yuan does the family dirty, Su goes off to grieve and learn Wushu with help from a mystical master, and then he goes and beats up Yuan.

And then Su becomes a beggar and masters a "drunken" mode of martial arts, fighting in a ring against Westerners. This whole second portion, about 40 minutes’ worth, is completely unnecessary and filmed in a different style. It gives the movie a split personality.

Vincent Zhao, a charismatic and talented actor-martial artist, plays Su, and there are poorly used cameos from Michelle Yeoh and the late David Carradine. The movie’s 3-D gestation has resulted in a bunch of spears poking out of the screen, and the middle hallucinatory sequence is pretty ridiculous, looking like it belongs on PlayStation.

There’s lots to like in "True Legend," including gorgeous cinematography, intense acting and the amazing fight sequences, but this is one of those movies that really needed a heavy hand in editing.

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