The title of Tai Chi Hero is not a metaphor. As Stephen Fung’s film opens, Yung Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is enjoying the mantle of martial arts master that he earned in the steampunk-inflected hit Tai Chi Zero (2012). That film was an underdog story about a freakish overachiever: Every time Yung got hit in a certain spot in his forehead, he morphed into a lethal kung fu savant. (Imagine if Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk simply by stubbing his toe and you have some idea of how this works.)
In this slickly produced sequel (which was shot back to back with the original film), Lu Chan is no longer the black sheep of his adopted mountain village; he’s newly married to the foxy, bossy Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), whose father, Chen Chang Xing (Tony Leung Ka Fai), is a kung fu guru of the highest order.
But trouble comes to town in the form of Chen’s exiled son, Zai Yang (William Feng), who is friendly at first but then pointedly cites a prophecy that the village will be destroyed by an outsider in its midst. He points the finger at Lu Chan, inciting panic among the locals and forcing a showdown, with Chen caught in the middle between his flesh-and-blood and his adopted heir.
There’s a lot more plot in Tai Chi Hero, including the efforts of Tai Chi Zero’s big bad guy, Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng), to get revenge after his defeat in the earlier movie, which involves buddying up with an unscrupulous railway tyro played by a scenery-munching Peter Stormare.
It’s always difficult in this sort of movie to toggle between the pressing demands of narrative and the weightless delight of set pieces, and while Fung’s attempts to err on the side of seriousness in this one after the stylized video-game high jinks of its predecessor are clearly purposeful, they don’t necessarily make for a more pleasurable viewing experience.
Part of the problem is that Lu Chan isn’t an especially charismatic hero. While no longer a figure of fun, he’s still something of an earnest blank, and far less interesting than his brother-in-law, whose prodigal-son resentments are compelling. Zai Yang is a man of science who tries to use gadgets to compensate for his lack of physical gifts, and ends up as a complex avatar of technological progress in a 19th-century milieu – not to mention a series that tries to blend traditional Chinese genre tropes with 21st-century digital effects.
When Tai Chi Hero does dispense with dramaturgy and allows its characters to just throw down, it’s good, bruising fun. The fight choreography is supple and inventive, and at one point, Fung wryly kids the clichés of the duel-film formula by having Lu Chan defeat a whole series of colourful bad guys in the space of about two minutes. And yet by rushing through the stuff that a lot of audience probably came to see, Fung may be confusing simple coyness with genuine subversion.
As the middle part of a proposed trilogy, Tai Chi Hero may ultimately look better in light of its own sequel (which, based on the evidence here, will double-down on the steampunk stuff), but now, its pitched battle between silliness and solemnity feels like a split decision.