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Tai Chi Hero
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite as crazy as 'Zero', but still a blast."
4 stars

In China, there was a mere four-week wait between "Tai Chi Zero" and this second part of the story; depending where you are in America, it wound up being six to eight months. Not that it much matters; now that they're on video it's a pretty easy double feature, and a fun one. It will certainly scratch any itch for steampunk kung fu action comedy that one might have, and I hope there's more coming.

Zero left off with Yang Lu Chan ("Jayden" Yuan Xiaochao) about to marry Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy) so that the people of Chen village won't maim him for "stealing" the kung fu style they have pledged not to teach to outsiders. Despite the rail-laying machine lying in ruins outside the village, it's not necessarily happily ever after: Defeated railway engineer Fang Zi Jing ("Eddie" Peng Yu-yen) hates the village more than ever and has a new patron in the East India Tea Company's Baron Fleming (Peter Stormare), while Yu Niang's father, Grandmaster Chen Chang Xing ("Tony" Leung Ka-fai), is certain that returning son Zai Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his wife Jin ("Nikki" Hsin Ying Hsieh) have a hidden agenda.

Though shot back-to-back with Tai Chi Zero with more or less the same cast and crew, Tai Chi Hero is in some ways a little more serious; there are fewer Scott Pilgrim-style on-screen annotations and cheerful winks when introducing new characters and the actors who play them. There are introspective moments for Yu Niang, and as Lu Chan's "internal kung fu" improves, he becomes less of a child-like bumbler. It's a bit surprising that this works so well, but it does - where a lot of much more stone-faced movies will talk a good game about martial arts as a way to conquer inner turmoil but selling the fights, this one actually dramatizes it as Lu Chan grows from a childish prodigy prone to berserker rage to something resembling a mature adult.

Not that this is in any way, shape, or form, a heavy movie. Director Stephen Fung and the three credited writers are still happy to fill the screen with delightfully anachronistic steampunk machines, special guest stars like 1970s star Patrick Tse, and the occasional bit of on-screen graphics lifted straight from video games. The soundtrack is more rock & roll than traditional Chinese music, the look of the movie is aggressively modern despite it being a period piece - the design is often bright and cheerful, and the cinematography owes as much to manga as gritty Hong Kong cinema (there are credits for 3D and IMAX versions, and even on 2D Blu-ray, it looks like something that would handle those enhancements well). The editing is zippy and fast-paced but almost never confusing.

Which is good, because you wouldn't want to mess with the action. Once again, the martial-arts action is directed by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung, and while there's obviously a lot of wire and CGI work, the bits where fighters are parrying and mixing things up hand-to-hand are great, with both veteran Tony Leung and wushu champion Jayden Yuan showing some pretty fair skills (Angelababy can at least sell it, as well). There's a lot of crazy stuff throughout, such as aerial escapes and an opponent's machine parts practically exploding at a punch - but the centerpiece is a nifty throwdown between Yuan and the still-impressive Yuen Biao that requires some pretty fancy footwork.

It's still a fun cast, too - most of the characters are not quite as broadly drawn as they were before, but Jayden Yuan still shows the potential to be a likable screen presence as well as a good screen fighter, while Angelababy does well at displaying maturity as opposed to a crush. Feng Shaofeng is a fine addition as Zai Yang - by the end of the movie, he's so much a part of the ensemble one might forget that he was only in the first for about a minute (Nikki Hsin's character doesn't get much chance to express herself, being deaf and mute). Peter Stormare's not the addition one might hope for, though, in large part because of the absolutely bizarre accent he sports when speaking English - did they have him do a terrible job so as not to show up Eddie Peng (who is pretty great at everything but speaking English)?

A question for another film to answer, perhaps. This movie concludes tidily but not forcefully enough to rule out the third film supposedly in the works, so maybe we'll find out. Everybody on both sides of the Pacific will have to wait for that one, but it should be worth it - the series has proven reliably entertaining, and I'm quite ready for another burst of Tai Chi energy.

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originally posted: 07/14/13 08:45:50
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  26-Apr-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 02-Jul-2013


  26-Apr-2013 (M)

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