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).
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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.