The increasing number of films going direct-to-video has had an interesting effect on the martial arts genre. There was a time when the promise of a big star like Jackie Chan was enough to lure in an audience. People went for the performer. As budgets dropped, however, studios began to make their own stars. Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, and Marko Zaror were enough to create a budget version of the blockbuster kung fu films being made for the theaters, and special effects and superhero movies took over in theaters. Now, directors are going bigger with the genre, staging more historical epics with Lord of the Rings-style battle sequences, and hiring directors who will leave more of a stylistic imprint beyond framing the martial arts in the shot.
Tai Chi Hero is the sequel to Tai Chi Zero, a martial arts / steampunk epic, which, among other things, featured a martial arts hero with glowing eyes, and a giant beetle-like steampunk tank crawling toward an innocent village. The tone of most of the film is energetic and goofy -- not so much the charmingly sweet silliness of a Chan comedy but more of a cartoon exaggeration. On one hand, there are parts of Tai Chi Hero that are quite a bit of fun, but on the other, it plays like a movie that hasn't settled on what it's trying to accomplish, poorly juggling the historical content, martial arts action, massive war sequences, and this over-the-top tone. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more schizophrenic than it ought to be.
When Tai Chi Zero ended, Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) had yet to be trained by Grandmaster Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), because Lu is not a member of the Chen family. To solve this problem, the Grandmaster's daughter, Yuniang (Angelababy) has agreed to marry Chan. The wedding is just about to begin when Big Brother (Daniel Wu) shows up. Ostensibly, he's returned to celebrate his sister's wedding, but upon arriving, he quickly begins to sow the seeds of doubt in people's minds about Lu Chan's presence in the village, all while Lu Chan discovers marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. Elsewhere, a seething Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) teams up with the slimy Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) in order to sew up a comfy job leading an army that he can use to destroy the village, and everyone in it.
Those little touches of comic exaggeration, by director Stephen Fung, power the movie's most entertaining bits. In one short sequence, Lu Chan chases after a trio of folks who provoked him into fighting, and captions like "Accessory After the Fact!" pop up as he hunts each one down. Later, when Chan must battle seven guardians, each one is scratched off of a graphic list, video-game style, in a fast-paced montage. Fung mixes well with Sammo Hung's fight choreography as well. Although the movie might spend too much time on really short fights when some better, longer ones would probably be preferable, there's a spectacular final number set atop the railing walls of a massive kitchen. While Chan and Li Qiankun (Yuen Biao) above, fish are dumped into frying pans below.
The story, on the other hand, is a little aimless, dragging the movie's pace down in a hurry. Fung's weakness is flashback sequences, which are constantly used here to fill in details or minor bits of philosophy that could just as easily been conveyed with a line or two. The transformation of Chan and Yuniang's relationship from Master / Student to lovey-dovey is kind of cute, but the film could use a little more of their training sessions to develop and build up the characters and their relationship, and a little less of Big Brother's "curse" charade or Fang buying the cooperation of cannons for his siege on the village. When Chan fights Qiankun at the end of the film, it should feel like all of Chan's training paying off, but since Fung failed to include any of it, the fight ends up feeling arbitrary. The film ends by hinting there may be a third film in the series, but the sense that there are stories purposefully left untold kind of taints the experience.
Tai Chi Hero looks pretty much like any other Well Go USA release: poster artwork, their standardized grid on the back for technical information, and a slipcover with the exact same art on it. Thankfully, Tai Chi Hero's original key art was decent-looking, so this Blu-Ray packaging is as well. The disc comes in a eco-friendly Vortex Blu-Ray case, and there is a flyer in the case advertising other Well Go releases.
The Video and AUdio
This 2.35:1 1080p AVC transfer is 90% perfect...and thus, deeply frustrating. Fine detail is absolutely impeccable -- from the texture of fabric down to the tiniest flecks of dust and shortest hairs, every shot in the entire movie is razor-sharp. Color is also excellent; although the film itself is deliberately monochromatic at times, with lots of black and white clothing amongst cliffs of gray dust, when there are colors that can pop, they do. However, banding can be spotted in a couple of shots (namely an early digital day-for-night that looks awful), the film's black levels are frustratingly inconsistent, and every once in awhile, the digital photography looks a little over-sharpened -- possibly a quirk of the photography, not the transfer itself.
A Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is an equally aggravating "almost flawless" situation: the martial arts sequences often have a number of interesting and stylish sound design choices, from the hollow ringing of the giant bronze bell to each little whipping smack of limbs meeting limbs. However, a military sequence involving bombs and cannons doesn't have the same kind of aural flair. Dialogue sounds fine, although the English subtitles occasionally struggle to fluidly juggle translating the dialogue and on-screen text (It'd be better to put the text translation at the top and the dialogue at the bottom in these instances, but the subtitles just pop on and off faster during these bits, which is not a great solution). A Mandarin DD 5.1 track and an English dub in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DD 2.0 are also included, along with Chinese, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There is only one extra on the disc, which is at once substantial and underwhelming. "From Zero to Hero" (1:00:50, SD) looks like a feature-length documentary based on the running time, but this is a stiched-together reel of featurettes that likely appeared on the internet. I often find Asian making-of featurettes to be on the dry side, and these clips certainly move faster than that, but insight is sacrificed in favor of quick-cut soundbytes and way, way too many clips from the film, not to mention the same intro and outro for each segment.
Trailers for The Guillotines, The King of the Streets, and The Four play before the main menu. Two original theatrical trailers for Tai Chi Hero (Hong Kong and US) are also included.
Tai Chi Hero is fitfully entertaining, jumping in and out of stylized fun. The Blu-Ray is basically the same story, wavering on the edge of A/V perfection. Fans of Tai Chi Zero will probably be most interested, but those who can keep their expectations in check may have a good enough time to warrant a recommendation.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.