The martial arts-based action movies of Hong Kong have seldom been known for subtlety or restraint, but Stephen Fung's steampunk kung fu brawl Tai Chi Zero cranks up the genre to crazy heights. Where old-school Jackie Chan movies emphasize bone-breaking stunts and outlandish fight choreography, Fung relies on computer effects and occasional animated sequences to make his deranged period piece look like a video game, comic book or other bit of splashy pop culture.
How strange is Tai Chi Zero? Our hapless hero Lu Chan (newcomer Yuan Xiaochao) has an unsightly growth on his forehead called "Three Blossoms on the Crown." Lu Chan normally can imitate any fighting move he sees, but when someone hits him on the warty protuberance, his eyes glow and he flies into a berserker rage that can throw 19th-century armies at bay. The condition will kill him unless he learns the kung fu of the remote village of Chen, even though the technique isn't taught to outsiders. In one sequence, villagers ranging from tofu bakers to little girls repeatedly kick Lu Chan out of the village, each fight framed with video game graphics.
Coincidentally, the village faces a threat in the form of Western-style progress as a European-educated former villager threatens to bring a new railway line through the town. Lu Chan teams with beautiful Yuniang Chen (Angelababy) to try and stop a gargantuan piece of construction equipment full of gears, steam, and bad guys. Overall, the film equates Westernization with evil. The frenetic visual design and melodramatic plot twists tend to swallow up the actors, but the intriguingly named Angelababy gives a feisty performance as a pretty young kung fu master.
Tai Chi Zero doesn't measure up to Stephen Chow's comedies like Kung Fu Hustle, which use CGI to make Looney Tunes-style laws of physics seem to work in real life. Nevertheless, Fung revels in computer effects like a kid in a candy store, making his characters defy gravity and showing extras of injured skulls when henchmen get hit with flying melons. In perhaps the silliest touch, subtitles introduce key actors and provide their hippest credits, like "Andrew Lau as Lu Chan's father, director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy." Tai Chi Zero may be no more than a piece of junk, but it's reasonably entertaining junk that would be a hoot to watch with a lively audience and a buzz on.