I can appreciate the value of a good, cheesy kung-fu flick as much as the next guy. Still, even I have to admit that these badly-dubbed doozies have the power to undermine a martial arts film of true merit when it comes along. Case and point, Tai Chi Master (previously released in the U.S. as Twin Warriors), which, upon first glance, looks like a bland addition to star Jet Li’s credits that he’d just as soon forget. But more than just serving up a heaping plate of fights and fancy footwork, Tai Chi Master actually has a pretty good story at its heart, one that’s a bit on the thin side but provides quite a bit more drama and conflict than you’d normally expect out of movies like this.
As young children, Jun Bao (Li) and Tian Bao (Chin Siu Ho) entered a Shaolin monastery, dedicating their lives to perfecting their skills in the martial arts. Though the two share differing demeanors, with the kindly Jun Bao frequently clashing with the more temperamental Tian Bao, the two swiftly become the best of friends and the most talented of martial artists. But after a nasty skirmish at what was to be a friendly competition, the pair is banished to live out their lives in the outside world, where their paths continue to differ even more greatly. While Tian Bao quickly rises through the ranks of an evil governor’s personal army, Jun Bao falls in with a group of rebels fighting against the politico’s greedy policies and strong-arming tactics. It’s only inevitable that the two friends will end up having to do battle with one another, although in order to fight an enemy as equally skilled as he is, Jun Bao realizes he must adopt a new martial arts philosophy in order to gain the upper hand.
Tai Chi Master’s success should come as no surprise after looking at who comprises its cast and crew. Li, whose American outings have done his fierce skills little justice, is at his ass-kicking prime here, and joining him for all the action is the equally-talented Michelle Yeoh, playing a feisty rebel Jun Bao develops an affection for. On top of that, the whole affair was directed by none other than Yuen Wo-Ping, better known on this side of the pond as the fight choreographer for the Kill Bill and Matrix movies. If Tai Chi Master is any indication, he saved the best battles for those movies made close to home. This is about as good as wire fu (or, in this case, wire chi) gets, with a flurry of furious fights exploding across the screen that instantly put anything Steven Seagal’s ever done to complete shame. From Jun Bao and Tian Bao’s battle against legions of pole-wielding monks to the rebel assault on the governor’s army, the fight scenes are crisply-executed and never cease to make your jaw drop due to their sheer awesomeness.
With characters often sailing through the air like the ground was made of rubber, realism was something Tai Chi Master never strived to achieve, putting an emphasis on the story’s larger-than-life nature rather than keeping the fights grounded in reality. Like a good portion of Hong Kong action cinema, Tai Chi Master has a pretty strong melodramatic streak, but it’s all part of the act here, as the over-the-top emotions go hand in hand with the physics-breaking fights. At its core, though, the film actually has a pretty solid story; the idea of two friends parting, only to reunite as sworn enemies, is nothing new, but Li and Ho do a good enough job with their characters to make you care about what happens to them instead of just biding your time before the final showdown arrives. The plot doesn’t always work, especially during a perplexingly long sequence in which Jun Bao appears to have gone batshit crazy, but it’s still more compelling fare than martial arts flicks tend to serve up.
As modern action films are slowly being swallowed up by a sea of CGI and overpaid stars with the personality of a rutabaga, true talent is a little hard to come by in the genre. But those let down by the likes of Van Damme and Seagal’s latest straight-to-DVD disasters would do right by picking up Tai Chi Master, a film that rarely finds itself without something downright cool to show.