Billed as steampunk kung fu, Tai Chi Zero looks to shake up the standard martial arts flick by spicing up some of the visual style in a genre mash-up. Unfortunately, while the movie proves to be modestly entertaining, the idea of bringing the steampunk aesthetic to the world of martial arts fails to truly come together. Tai Chi Zero is a tale of style over substance. Style wins, but it is not for a lack of trying. Director Stephen Fung (House of Fury) throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen.
The film opens on a gold-tone battlefield where Qing Dynasty forces clash with a cult army. It is a battle that is not given all that much context, but it seems to be a fight between tradition and the encroaching influence of the West. That is all well and good, and sets up the central conflict of the tale, although it becomes manifest in a different fashion a little later in the film with the arrival of a Western educated villain and his team powered railroad machine.
At the center of the battle is Lu Chan, aka The Freak (real-life martial-arts champion Jayden Yuan). We watch as he goes about beating off a horde of Qing warriors before the order is given to unleash his true power. A fellow cult warrior races into the action and smacks poor, simple Lu Chan on a weird wart thing on his forehead. His eyes glow from unseen energy and he lays waste to all for a minute before collapsing to the ground.
It turns out Lu Chan is some sort of prodigy who can learn kung fu by just watching it and the knob on his head sort of supercharges his abilities, but each use brings him closer to death. A friendly doctor says he must learn an internal kung fu to survive. He is sent to Chen Village to learn Chen-style Tai Chi.
From here they start to pile on the plot threads. Lu Chan is to learn a style that is forbidden to be taught to outsiders, he falls for the daughter of the town’s kung fu master, Yuniang (Angelababy), even though she is engaged to Fang (Eddie Peng), a man educated in the West who brings a machine to lay railroad ties. Of course, Fang as a grudge against the town and is also in love with his help, Claire (Mandy Lieu). There is more going on, but never amounts to much. The threads sort of choke each other out, none of them have enough room to develop.
Tai Chi Zero is populated with people we have all seen before in a story that feels rushed and overstuffed. I am usually all for style, but it just goes into overload. There is an odd mash up of Wild Wild West style technology and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World style pop up graphics and subtitles that make it look like they are trying too hard. So far as the writing goes, we have the vengeful bad guy who wants to succeed at all costs, the mysterious teacher who helps our hero, our hero who seems to be perpetually perplexed, and the woman caught between them all. All familiar types who add nothing new, and in the case of our hero, may even detract.
The acting is all rather middling. Jayden Yuan may be an excellent martial artist, but he is not ready to carry a movie. It doesn’t help that the character is not written all that well, instead of being the lovable underdog, he is just a goofy character we are forced to follow around.
The action, choreographed by Sammo Hung, is not bad. The problem is that, like the rest of the film, it has STYLE slathered all over it. The camera is in a constant state of motion and when it isn’t moving, the scene is being cut like a bad music video and overlaid with graphics.
On top of all that, the movie seems to stop halfway through. In fact it does. While credits role by, the trailer for the already completed sequel, Tai Chi Hero, plays. Hopefully the events of that film will help elevate the events of this one.
Audio/Video. The film is presented in a ratio of 2.35:1. The high definition looks really good. It offers a high level of fine detail and excels in close-ups. I particularly liked the sequence inside the big steam train track machine. Colors are well saturated and detail is not lost in darker sequences. While the narrative may have given me fits, the quality of the transfer is never an issue.
Audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It is offered in both its original Mandarin and an English dub. Clearly, the original language is the way to go, but the dub has its place. It is a good track with solid dialogue clarity and plenty of surround activity which crops up a lot during the fight sequences.
Extras. For some reason the accentuate the replacement Z’s in naming the extra features.
- Behind the Zenes. Typical behind the scenes stuff, discussing the genesis of the concept and the production.
- MuZic VideoZ. Yikes. A mash of clips with a couple of, umm, singers. Chinese metalcore and hip hop collide and I swear one of them says he is singing to a pot pie. Mesmerizingly awful.
Bottomline. Now, I did not completely hate the movie, but it truly seemed to be trying to hard to be cool with a story that was not quite ready. There were too many different elements here, from the epic opening battle bit to the flashback sequence that mimicked a silent film, from an animated sequence to added graphics, Tai Chi Zero throws everything at the audience hoping something will stick. It might be worth a watch but it fails to ultimately be memorable.
Very Mildly Recommended.