Steampunk kung-fu epic Tai Chi Hero: the Cure for Boring Action Movies

We're just on the verge of the summer movie season, when everything is one big dark conflagration full of angst and quips. But if you want to see a real motherfucking action movie, you don't have to wait: at least not in some U.S. cities, where Tai Chi Hero is opening today.

Tai Chi Hero is the sequel to Tai Chi Zero, which we reviewed here. And it's every bit as insane and awesome as the first movie, with maybe even a somewhat better story and more madcap inventiveness. Director Stephen Fung raises his game with a ton of weird set pieces, culminating in a cooking-themed kung-fu showdown that's guaranteed to please fans of Iron Chef — and leave you insanely hungry.

In Tai Chi Zero, we followed the freakish Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), who was born with a strange horn-like growth on his head that turns him into a demonic fighter but also makes him sick. He travels to the ChenVillage to learn their notorious Chen-style kung-fu, which they don't teach to outsiders. And he helps to save them from a monstrous steampunky machine that's trying to destroy the village to make way for a railroad.

In the sequel, Yang Lu Chan marries Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), so he can become a full-fledged Chen and learn Chen-style kung-fu. But she won't accept him as her real husband and makes him call her "Master." Meanwhile, the evil Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) is still scheming to destroy the village. And Yu Niang's brother Chen Zai Yang (Feng Shao Feng) comes back and wants to drive Yang Lu Chan away.

Basically, there are two reasons to rush to your local theater and watch Tai Chi Zero right away:

1) The cool machines. Just like in the first movie, this is an alternate history of China, where there are awesome clockwork machines — except this time they get way more interesting, and it's not just a cut-and-dried "machines are evil" riff. This time around, we meet Chen Zai Yang, who was heir to the Chen-style kung-fu legacy but would rather make cool exoskeletons and flying machines, full of brass gears and little valves. Everybody looks down on Zai Yang because he doesn't want to study kung-fu, so he builds himself a clockwork exoskeleton that lets him become a kung-fu master without studying. It's amazing. This time around, the relationship with machines becomes much more complex, and there's less of a simplistic take on modernity and Westernization — although the Westerners are still basically evil.

2) The awesome romance. Yang Lu Chan is married to the most kickass kung-fu fighter in ChenVillage, who trains him but won't romance him — and meanwhile, it turns out that there's only one cure for his quasi-demonic horn that flares up whenever he fights. He has to balance his yin with his yang, and the best way to do that is by, well, consummating his marriage. So he has to win his wife's heart. With, you guessed it, lots of awesome kung-fu fighting and mass destruction. This is the sort of romance we'd like to see more of.

Just like in the first movie, Fung puts in lots of weird video-gamey touches where graphics pop up to let you know what's going on. But this element, too, gets pushed to a brand new level, especially towards the end when Yang Lu Chan has to fight all eight branches of the traditional Ba Gua, one by one, in a very Scott Pilgrim-inspired sequence.

The standout performance in the movie, though, comes from Hong Kong movie MVP Tony Leung Fa-Kai as Grandmaster Chen, the leader of ChenVillage and the ultimate teacher of Chen-style kung-fu. In a movie that’s full of insane set pieces and ludicrous comedy bits, Leung does the "dignified kung-fu master" role with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of humor that's actually subtle and underplayed. And his relationship with his son, who'd rather build machines than learn kung-fu, forms the emotional backbone of the film.

And yeah, there's just buttloads of amazing action, including one bravura sequence where the entire army comes to attack ChenVillage and basically there are three unarmed people against an army, with cannons and stuff.

At first blush, Tai Chi Hero looks like it's going to be a full-on spoof, full of just one silly set piece after another, but in the end this movie's story comes together pretty well — and the pacing is never sacrificed to slot in more ridiculous gags. It's a fun ride that actually has a neat story to tell.

And as the latest in a long line of kung-fu movies that deal with the legacy of China's humiliation at the hands of the British, this one is unusual — because it allows, in the end, for more than one viewpoint. And the notion that making a cool clockwork exoskeleton doesn’t turn you automatically into a Western stooge, or a bad person. There's even a subtle message about not so being bound to tradition that you won't let people be themselves.

I actually got a bit of goosebumps a few times, towards the end of Tai Chi Hero, even though I was just expecting kind of a zany ride. This is an action movie that's both more inventive than a lot of summer movies — and has more heart, as well. Definitely worth driving out of your way to see.