×

Film Review: ‘Tai Chi Hero’

A sporadically engaging martial-arts extravaganza that looks even better compared with its predecessor

With:
Jayden Yuan, Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Yuan Wenkang, Shu Qi, Stephen Fung, Xiong Xin Xin, Shen Si, Wei Ai Xuan, Eddie Peng, Feng Shaofeng, Wu Di, Chen Sicheng, Xiong Nai-jin, Feng Tsui-fan, Nikki Hsieh Hsin-ying, Patrick Tse, Daniel Wu, Peter Stormare, Ying Da, Li Qiankun. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

The central paradox of Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi” franchise is that it uses all manner of digital trickery to tell a story about the perils of modernization. That contradiction aside, “Tai Chi Hero,” the second entry in the projected trilogy, is a sporadically engaging martial-arts extravaganza that looks even better compared with its predecessor, last year’s borderline-insufferable “Tai Chi Zero.” While this 19th-century tale of provincial kung fu masters and their more technologically advanced enemies is a similarly rambunctious, CG-laden diversion, it boasts significant improvements with its less frenetic style and more focused storytelling. Expect the gravity-resistant sequel to land somewhere in “Zero’s” commercial ballpark ($24 million worldwide).

Once again the action swirls around Chen Village, an isolated mountain hamlet whose inhabitants practice a form of kung fu so extraordinary that no one from the outside world is allowed to learn it. The lone exception is Yang Luchan (Olympic champion martial artist Jayden Yuan), the mentally slow but physically formidable young fighter who managed to ingratiate his way into the town’s good graces by the end of “Tai Chi Zero.” Now Luchan is betrothed to Yuniang (Angelababy), the strong-willed daughter of village elder Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a marriage of convenience intended to protect the town’s closely guarded secrets.

But their wedding occasions the unexpected return of Master Chen’s estranged, long-absent son, Zaiyang (Feng Shaofeng), who makes no secret of his disapproval of Luchan and invokes an ancient prophecy, spelling utter catastrophe should Chen-style kung fu spread to outsiders. Perhaps not coincidentally, the gun-wielding railroad builders who threatened Chen Village with destruction in the first film are looking for a rematch, their efforts again spearheaded by traitorous industrialist Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the oily-menacing Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare).

That Zaiyang turns out to be a martial-arts underachiever and a gadget whiz, someone more comfortable tinkering with machinery than deflecting body blows, lends the story a touch of poignancy, anchored by the gravitas and emotional reserve that Leung and Feng bring to their roles. The tensions coursing through the film — between father and son, tradition and technology, hand-to-hand combat and Steampunk-style weaponry — may be plain and predictable, but Fung, again working from a script by Zhang Jialu and Cheng Hsiao-tse, manages to reconcile opposites in a dramatically and thematically satisfying manner.

Unlike the men and women who sail over landscapes and parapets here (most of them using only their minds, although there is one exceptionally lethal hang glider), “Tai Chi Hero” never soars. As a stylist, Fung is an irrepressible show-off and a bit of a prankster, though there’s far less of the pop-up graphics and inside jokes that made the earlier pic such a chore; having ostentatiously set the table for an all-star buffet in the first film, the director seems to have slowed down long enough to let character investment and narrative interest take hold. As the zero-to-hero progression of the title would suggest, Luchan comes off as less of a dunce here, making Yuan’s eager-to-please performance considerably easier to take, even if his fists remain his most expressive instrument.

A videogame aesthetic persists in some of the action sequences, marked by whooshing camerawork, chop-chop editing and a none-too-rigorous sense of visual coherence, neither enhancing nor detracting from this agreeably weightless diversion. By the end, most viewers will feel as if they’ve spent more than enough time in this historical fantasy world, although the path to the inevitable third and final installment is dutifully set out in the film’s closing minutes.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Tai Chi Hero'

Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., April 29, 2013. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: (China) A Well Go USA Entertainment (in U.S.) release of a Huayi Brothers Media Corp. and Huayi Brothers Intl. presentation, in association with Shanghai Stone-Capital Culture Investment, Hunan Highland Culture Media Venture Partnership, of a Diversion Pictures production. Produced by Wang Zhongjun, Wang Liqun, Zhu Jing. Executive producers, Wang Zhonglei, Chen Kuofu. Co-executive producers, Zhang Dajun, Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu.

Crew: Directed by Stephen Fung. Screenplay, Zhang Jialu, Cheng Hsiao-tse; story, Chen Kuofu. Camera (color, widescreen), Ngor Chi-kwan, Lai Yiu-fai, Du Jie; editors, Cheng, Mathew Hui, Zhang Weili; music, Katsunori Ishida; production designers, Yip Kam-tim; costume designer, Liu Xuequn; sound, Li Tao; supervising sound editor, Nopawat Likitwong; re-recording mixers, Traithep Wongpaiboon, Likitwong; special effects supervisors, Fok Kim Tong, To Kwok Keung, Chan Shing, Cheung Shui Kim; visual effects supervisors, Chas Chau Chi-shing; Kim Ho Pui-kin, Ng Yuen-fai, A Law; action director, Sammo Hung; associate producers, Bernard Yang, Helen Li, Ken Wu, David Chan; assistant directors, Eddy Yeung Kwok Wai, Lo Kim Wah, Chan Wai Hung, Liu Chuan-hui; casting, Tang Sheqing.

With: Jayden Yuan, Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Yuan Wenkang, Shu Qi, Stephen Fung, Xiong Xin Xin, Shen Si, Wei Ai Xuan, Eddie Peng, Feng Shaofeng, Wu Di, Chen Sicheng, Xiong Nai-jin, Feng Tsui-fan, Nikki Hsieh Hsin-ying, Patrick Tse, Daniel Wu, Peter Stormare, Ying Da, Li Qiankun. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

More Film

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

  • Spider-Man Could Leave the Marvel Cinematic

    Spider-Man Could Leave MCU if Disney, Sony Can't Reach Financing Deal

    Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures have hit an impasse on new financing terms for upcoming Spider-Man movies, sources have told Variety. If a deal cannot be reached, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will not produce future Spider-Man films, effectively removing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reps for Disney, Marvel and Sony [...]

  • Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality

    Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality in Film and TV

    Screen Australia, Australia’s federal film and TV funding body, has made sufficient progress in furthering gender equality that it has set more ambitious targets. The organization has exceeded its long-term Gender Matters key performance indicator, with 56% of projects receiving production funding having at least half of the key creative roles occupied by women, based [...]

  • Pawel Pawlikowski, during the ceremony award

    Pawel Pawlikowski on the Power of Making Movies With ‘Barbarians at the Gate’

    Academy Award winner Pawel Pawlikowski says he’s watching “with horror” as political developments increasingly divide countries across the globe, and admits that he’s reluctant to take a stab at documenting modern life after the success of his two critically acclaimed period dramas, foreign-language Oscar winner “Ida” and thrice-nominated “Cold War.” “I don’t have a hook [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content