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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Tai Chi Zero’ is pop-up martial arts

Olympic champion Yuan Xiaochao in a martial arts fight scene from “Tai Chi Zero.”

Olympic champion Yuan Xiaochao in a martial arts fight scene from “Tai Chi Zero.”

‘Tai Chi Zero” may be the first movie to come with its own Wiki. A comically hyperstylized martial arts fandango from director Stephen Fung, the film introduces each of its characters with onscreen titles that list not only the actors but their chief claims to fame: “Fung Hak-On, founding member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team,” “Xiong Xin Xin, ‘Ghost Leg Seven’ from the ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ series.” Whenever a fight breaks out, labels name the moves, “Pop Up Video”-style: “Monkey Offering Fruit,” “Crossed Lotus,” “Lazily Touching the Robe.” A journey from desert to mountain appears to be in Google Street View. Apparently, they shot this movie through a browser.

All this manic invention is great fun for a while, until “Tai Chi Zero” falls apart on the rocks of the eternal verities: story, acting, direction. The narrative follows a young novice named Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao, 2008 Men’s Wushu Olympic champion) as he travels to the village home of the Chen fighting style. The problem is that they don’t like outsiders there and everyone from old men to little girls can kick Lu Chan’s butt.

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So far, so amusing, and director Fung keeps us off guard with breathless change-ups in cinematic style — silent film, animation, steampunk, spaghetti western. At about the midpoint, though, “Tai Chi Zero” settles into a different movie and a more boring one, about the vengeful village nerd (Eddie Peng) and his attempts to ram a new railway through town. A giant iron tank lays siege to the heroes, with Lu Chan, his ladylove (an actress named Angelababy, just about the best thing in the film), and her fighting-master father (Hong Kong movie legend Tony Leung Ka Fai) doing their best to monkey-wrench the invaders.

As the hero, Yuan is never able to muster more than one facial expression, and Malaysian-American model Mandy Lieu is laughably wooden as a coldhearted killer. Even the fights aren’t convincing — despite being choreographed by actor-director Sammo Hung — because the hectic editing and camerawork rarely let us see what’s happening in anything like real time and space. The martial arts genre has become a form as rigidly stylized as Chinese opera or Japanese Noh, and it may be time for an enterprising filmmaker to bring things back to zero with uncompromising realism.

Not this “Zero,” though. For all its playfulness and cameo one-shots (“Lung Siu-lung, ’70s kung fu superstar”!), Fung’s film represents a thundering dead end. Of course there will be a sequel (“Tai Chi Hero,” already in the can), but you don’t need to see it to have seen it all.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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