Chen-style kung fu is as powerful as ever in Tai Chi Hero, but the trilogy that kicked off in style with Tai Chi 0 runs off the rails in this sequel that’s light on action and heavy on family melodrama. Try as director Stephen Fung might to inject some energy into this flabby follow-up, screenwriters Cheng Hsiao Tse and Zhang Jialu seem determined to spoil his fun by focusing on a limp prodigal-son subplot that ices the story’s momentum.
In the wake of saving Chen Village from the malevolent Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his terrifying steam-powered leviathan, horned hero Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) prepares to marry his beautiful mentor Yuniang (Angelababy), but finds their wedding disrupted when her long-lost brother Zai Yang Chen (Feng Shaofeng) returns to town on a mission to thwart an ancient prophecy. According to legend, if Chen-style kung fu is ever taught to an outsider, tragedy will befall the entire village. Meanwhile, as the frightened locals begin to turn on Lu Chan, Fang joins forces with Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) of the East India Trading Company in a plot to assert his power once and for all. As deputy governor, Fang returns to Chen Village with a massive army and a major grudge. But when the cannonballs start to fly, Grandmaster Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) takes a stand against Fang with a little unexpected help from Zai, giving Lu and Yuniang an opportunity to escape and seek help from Master Li in Peking. Now Lu must prove himself once again while protecting his new home in Chen Village.
A showy martial-arts opus with bold style and big energy, Tai Chi 0 managed to transcend its fairly traditional story line with playful performances and gravity-defying action. In that film, it was fun to watch humble underdog Lu Chan weather a furious blur of feet and fists in an effort to save himself from the withering effects of his “Three Blossoms on the Crown,” and though the stakes and characters are essentially the same here, a serious lack of action makes the silly plot mechanics all the more pronounced. Yes, that pesky Western influence is right at the gates of the Qing dynasty, and yes, Peter Stormare is happy to chew scenery as villainous East India Trading Company representative Duke Fleming, but in their attempts to expand the scope of the trilogy, the screenwriters lost sight of the little touches that made the original so memorable. Gone are the dazzling fights that showcased the inimitable Chen-style kung fu, and in their place are scenes of hackneyed dialogue that prove that drama isn’t Fung’s strong suit. Though the playful vibe of the previous chapter stubbornly shines through on rare occasions, the fun is largely absent as Deputy Governor Fang plots his revenge in a showdown that’s a textbook example of diminishing returns. Even on occasions in which Sammo Hung’s fight choreography takes center stage, it never feels anywhere near as graceful or awe-inspiring as it did in the first flick, and when a Street Fighter-style brawling montage barrels by in the final act, it registers more as a connecting scene than a showstopping set piece. Meanwhile, unlike Lu Chan’s colorful opponents in the first film, the adversaries he faces here have as much character as the disposable video-game foes that arrive in waves and blink into nonexistence upon defeat.
It’s hard to fault Fung and company for wanting to turn up the drama in this sequel; sustaining a trilogy on action alone would just wear an audience down, and talented cast members Feng Shaofeng and Tony Leung Ka-Fai do succeed in giving substance to their broadly drawn characters. It’s just that, much like Tai Chi Hero’s schizophrenic soundtrack -- a busy sonic blend that shifts between James Brown-style funk and playful jazz with the flash of a fist -- the disparate elements of the screenplay seem hopelessly at odds. As a result, the action disappoints while the drama falls flat. Shortcomings aside, here’s to hoping that the final chapter of the saga, Tai Chi Summit, will truly be the exciting apex that its title promises.
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