Tai Chi Zero

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/20/12 02:39:52

"Steampunk kung fu where anything goes? I'll take two!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I knew going in that "Tai Chi Zero" had a follow-up coming out in fairly rapid succession (a one month gap in China, three in North America), and was still a bit surprised that the movie saves its big finish for later. Fortunately, it's still a lot of fun all the way through, plenty good enough to make the audience want more.

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is a martial arts prodigy dragooned into the Divine Truth Cult who can match any move he sees and goes into a sort of overdrive mode when someone hits the horn-like protrusion on his head, although it is draining his life force. Supposedly, learning the "internal kung fu" practiced at Chen Village will help reverse this ailment, but they don't train outsiders, though a nice laborer (Tony Leung Ka-fai) tends to his injuries. Meanwhile Yu Nia (Angelababy), the daughter of the of the master Lu Chan came to learn from is incredibly happy to have her finace Fan Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) back in town, even if he is there to negotiate for the railroad.

There are a lot of other familiar and/or famous faces in the cast, and the way the filmmakers introduce them is a perfect example of the impish sense of humor at play. Some old 1970s and 1980s martial arts flicks would, instead of conventional titles, freeze-frame at a character's introduction and pop their names up on the screen, and Tai Chi Zero does that too, and at least in the English subtitles, it's a jocular reminder of why you should be excited: "Hey, it's Yuan Xiaochao as The Freak - he's a national wushu champion!" It's a form of breaking the fourth wall that director Stephen Fung and the other filmmakers have a lot of fun with, putting annotations right up on the screen and making a joke at their own expense before it goes too far. Though set in the 1800s, the style is aggressively modern, even with its swings into silent film-style flashbacks, with a rock & roll soundtrack, video game-inspired effects, and the sort of visual fire hose employed by the likes of Detention and Scott Pilgrim that assumes the sort of young audience used to processing multiple styles in rapid succession.

The steampunk elements are another piece of fun anachronism, especially the massive track-laying machine that makes its entrance halfway through the movie. The production designers and visual effects guys render each knob and gear with clear love, so that the ridiculously elaborate cranes and elevators elicit big stupid grins with their introduction. Like the delightfully elaborate costumes Zi Jing and Claire Heathrow (Mandy Lieu) wear, the whole thing is at the same time kind of bizarre and alien while still fitting perfectly into the general environment. There's a broad goofiness to the whole thing so that the audience will believe almost anything goes.

The cast is quite capable of rolling with that atmosphere, too. Yuan Xiaochao may turn out to be quite a find; the wushu champion is probably not a very good actor yet, but he's got an energetic charisma to him so that Lu Chan is maybe not very bright, but also unsinkable (though he's got Jet Li's background, it's not hard to see him going a comedic Jackie Chan direction if he so chooses). Angelababy matches him for winsome charm, giving Yu Nia a lot more personality than this sort of love interest might have (smart and capable with a very believable blind spot). Tony Leung Ka-fai is a pro, so that even when he winds up playing exactly the character the audience expects, he's able to hit just the right notes. Shu Qi seems to be having a blast as Lu Chan's mother in the flashbacks. Eddie Peng and model Mandy Lieu kind of stumble when the film decides they should be talking in English, but they're enjoyably expressive; I particularly love how Peng and the filmmakers hit "this is the road to becoming a tragic villain" with large hammers early on and still make it work.

The cast also includes a lot of potentially impressive screen fighters alongside Yuan, from grade-school prodigies to veterans like Xiong Xin Xin, each taking a turn with him in a nicely-done fight. Fung and his five-plus editors do a pretty good job of not shredding the action choreographed by Sammo Hung, and while there's a fair amount of CGI and wirework, the filmmakers do a very good job of knowing when to cover and when to get out of the way. The set pieces are sometimes eye-popping with skill and sometimes with silliness, but always plenty of fun.

Of course, by the end it's clear that the big finale really isn't really a finale, and the filmmakers get busy tossing a whole bunch of teases and cliffhangers leading in to "Tai Chi Hero", culminating in a trailer running alongside the end credits. As much as I would rather "Zero" held nothing back, there's really not much reason to be dissatisfied with what it delivers: This movie is a lot of anything-goes fun.

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