[Note: the screener of the film Well Go passed along didn't appear to have final subs--so some of the names and content may shift slightly in the theatrical cut as they get polished.]
The second chapter in director Stephen Fung's "Tai Chi" series ramps up the schmaltz (romances will begin, reconciliations will be made) and it's actually the better for it. "Tai Chi Zero" was a fun if half-baked movie that relied on clever text effects and tons of cameos to obscure what was essentially an introduction for this film.
"Hero," by contrast crisscrosses the story of the battle to save the hidden Chen village from the evil East India Railroad Company with a budding romance between kung fu prodigy Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and his wife/sifu Yu Niang (Angelbaby), and the return of the Grandmaster's prodigal son with his own mysterious agenda. Meanwhile, the outcast Fang has teamed up with an "British' railroad company rep (Peter Stormare, anything but) to get his revenge on Lu Chan, Yu Niang, and the whole of Chen Village.
Beginning after the wedding which concluded the first film, Lu Chan is allowed to remain in Chen Village and learn their secret martial art in order that he might cure the cursed horn that gives him supernatural fighting skills while dramatically reducing his lifespan. Yu Nian is only married to him out of obligation since he saved both her and the village from the steampunk monstrosity from the first film, but the only way Lu Chan's chi will become unblocked (if you get my meaning) is if he's in harmony with his wife.
Yuan opens up a bit more here--he's allowed to play Lu Chan as a brighter, more thoughtful character than in the first film and again, "Hero" is better for it, but Angelbaby is less of a bright spot here than she was last time around, going much smaller with her part. There are scenes where the camera gets in close to read a key emotion showing how she's reacting to some new change in the fate of the village and whether it's her performance or because director Stephen Fung chose a bad take, she looks impassive or bored. It's actually kind of distracting and puts a lot more weight on Yuan's shoulders this time out.
Meanwhile, Fang (Eddie Peng) has gone full villain, purchasing a governorship and gathering an army to attack Chen Village. Peng is allowed to play the character broadly, but with the exception of one scene where he threatens to have another character tortured, he's not the strongest heavy (the finale, which sees him getting spun like a top proves that). But this constant abuse by martial arts geniuses is actually part of the character's arc if the final scene leading into a ridiculous/awesome skull-shaped factory is any indication.
Actually, the steampunk element gets greater play this time with the introduction of the bomb-dropping heavenly wing and mechanical exoskeletons to ramp up the action. It still feels like an element that Fung and company could have gone after harder, but as it stands, it's a nice treat on top of the hand-to-foot-to-face fights.
The action this time out--featuring choreography by Sammo Hung again--but Fung really needs to cut it out with the undercranked action, which more often than not distracts instead of enhances the fights. The many brawls that suffer through this come off like cut-rate Ronny Yu in these moments, the camera seeming to stutter around, breaking up the flow of the combat and--worse--staying in brutally tight preventing us from seeing the performers' bodies (a fight scene is like a musical number--you need to see the legs moving or it doesn't work).
Still, when it's firing on all cylinders, when it's going over the top and having Peter Stormare rush his way through some lines in Chinese, "Tai Chi Hero" is a very, very good. It's got more of a heart this time and I was able to warm to the characters in a way that I couldn't with the first film.
"Tai Chi Hero" will be in limited release (meaning L.A., New York, San Francisco and other major markets will get showings at one theater each) on April 26. You can find the full list of locations showing the film below:
New York: AMC Empire 25
Los Angeles: AMC Atlantic Time Square (450 N. Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park)
San Francisco: AMC Metreon 16, AMC Cupertino Square 16
Honolulu: Pearlridge West 16
Vancouver: Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas
Toronto: Cineplex Odeon Yonge and Dundas Cinemas