||Splashy but ultimately an empty bauble, Stephen Fung’s colorful martial-arts epic “Tai Chi Zero” is rather like a live-action cartoon, a next-generation Jackie Chan movie made with a flair that sometimes crosses the line to wretched excess. It’s also incomplete, with an ending that sets the stage for a sequel even more blatantly than the first “Star Wars” did.
Before the semi-animated credits roll some ten minutes in, a sepia-colored prologue introduces its hero—Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao), a historical figure who’s supposed to have mastered the tai chi form of kung fu invented by the Chen family, who taught it to him. In the highly imaginative screenplay by Chen Kuo-fu, he’s a kid called The Freak because of a prominent mole on his forehead that’s referred to as a horn. But it’s soon revealed that the disfiguring mark is actually a sign of his innate martial arts prowess.
Years later, Yang’s become a military secret weapon; when his horn is pressed, he turns into a fighter so powerful that he’s virtually a supernatural being capable of downing scads of warriors. But a master informs him that as his horn changes color, his prowess will wane, and if he wants to avoid an early death he must travel to Chen Village to learn its special technique.
Unfortunately, when he gets there, he finds the populace refusing to help, all of them saying simply that they don’t teach their secret to outsiders. And in a series of bouts that are more slapstick comedy than anything else, he’s beaten repeatedly even by the local kids. Finally a mysterious man suggests that he simply mimic the moves used against him, and that wins him grudging acceptance, even from Yu Niang (Angelababy), the spunky daughter of Master Chen (Tony Leung Kar-fai) himself—who also turns out to be the mysterious stranger who gave Yang his winning advice.
But all is not well in Chen Village. Fang Ziying (Eddie Peng), a hometown boy who went off to the wider world, has returned westernized—as demonstrated by his bowler hat—and is acting as spokesman for the East India Company, which is planning to build a railway to the place. Unfortunately, the project will result in the destruction of the village, something to which the citizens naturally object. So Fang returns to his employers, who send him back with a giant steam-fueled war machine and a company army—as well as an imperious English girlfriend (Mandy Liu) who’s a corporate bigwig—to blast the town to smithereens. It’s up to Yang, Yu Niang and Master Chen to defeat the mechanical monster and send Fang and his forces into retreat. But even after the big battle, a wounded Yang must face punishment for “stealing” the village’s private moves until Yu Niang and her father intervene. Still, Fang isn’t willing to forget what’s transpired, and as the film ends he’s on his way back to Chen Village, though now with a moustache.
This is goofy stuff, half martial arts and half full-bore slapstick romp, and Fung and cinematographer Yui-Fai Lai jazz it up with all sorts of bells and whistles. The introductory prologue is fashioned as a silent short, with the actors introduced in subtitles that not only tell us who they are, but what they’re known for (some for parts in other pictures, others as directors, and many as stuntmen, coaches of martial-arts teams or stars on the kung-fu sports circuit). Animation is added to jazz up some sequences, especially the fight scenes, which are staged like live-action video games and include diagrams and place-indicators to point up the moves. (In one fight, a woman onlooker even shouts out the particular moves that will come next—something that may appeal to aficionados but will leave the uninitiated cold.) And when that big, belching war engine shows up, it might remind you of the mechanical monsters Dr. Loveless cooked up in Barry Sonnenfeld’s atrocious “Wild Wild West.” Everything is also drenched in an extremely eclectic music score supervised by Katsumori Ishida.
All this chop-socky and visual pizzazz might enthrall fans of the genre, but for most viewers a little of “Tai Chi Zero” will go a long way. By the halfway point you’ll likely be more exhausted than exhilarated, and by the close irritated at the fact that a trailer for the sequel plays during the final credits—a prospect that’s intended to raise your spirits but will probably depress you instead.