When they’re not actively kicking ass, the majority of martial arts extravaganzas set in the distant past tend to be about as stiff as any period piece. It’s as though Richard Attenborough took over while no one was paying attention. So a golf clap to Tai Chi Zero, which reimagines the genre as a sprightly, modern machine, as energetic during its expository passages as when people are smacking down. Actor-turned-director Stephen Fung is a hands-on enthusiast, or at least someone who’s seen Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World too many times. When his characters bust out their chops, digital animation suddenly crops up: The name of a certain move will appear above the person performing it or life levels will pop up as an adversary approaches defeat. Even when the screen doesn’t come alive with digital do-hickeys, the tone is relentlessly comic and the plotting silly, as though Fung was attempting to do for martial arts what Richard Lester once did to The Three Musketeers.
Tai Chi Zero is so kinetic and silly, in fact, that it forgets to bring the boom. The plot focuses on young Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao), born with a magical horn-like growth on his bald head that, when smacked, turns him into an F/X-backed kung fu hellion. It may also kill him if overused, and his attempts to control it with a special kind of tai chi form the basis of Tai Chi Zero. They too, presumably, form the basis of Tai Chi Hero, the forthcoming sequel, or at least they damn well better since Zero, in the annoying tradition of modern franchises, only tells part of the story.
After introducing characters and bad-ass baddies, including a steampunk machine threatening to lay waste to a village so as to erect a railroad, Zero finds a cliffhanger and simply runs a trailer. See you in a few months or whenever—and fuck you! Such brazenness isn’t on its face criminal, but most films know to at least build to a false climax. This does not. Imagine if Frodo et al. had only reached the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. The action we see here, though Sammo Hung-choreographed, is too brief to build up any steam, and the whole enterprise wreaks of a fanboy conjob. Zero, indeed.