Time to dust off yet another early Jet Li entry with Yuen Woo-Ping’s manic martial arts masterclass Tai Chi Master. Jet Li plays Junbao, a Shaolin disciple expelled from his Shaolin Temple with childhood friend Tienbao (Chin Siu-Ho) after a headache-inducing showdown that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The two wanderers join up with anti-government rebels - Michelle Yeoh we salute you - but it’s not long before Junbao and Tienbao go their separate ways.
Junbao remains with the resistance, while Tienbao joins up with evil Eunuch Jin. In age-old tradition, Tienbao is seduced by the power of the dark side and an electrifying face-off between the two former friends seems inevitable. Not before Junbao creates a new martial arts discipline in order to defeat Tienbao of course, and not before a relentless wave of martial arts showdowns that will leave you spinning for days.
I prefer a little more realism in my fight sequences these days, but anyone signing on for an early Yuen Woo-Ping picture knows exactly what to expect. We’re talking about a wide array of wirework here, abundant energy and feats of strength that defy the laws of gravity. Jet Li takes on hundreds of enemies at a time and doesn’t even break a sweat, it’s that kind of movie, so if you’re looking for the kind of fix that Thai action cinema serves up these days, there’s a chance you’ll find the exaggerated moves of Tai Chi Master a little too distracting. That said, Yuen Woo-Ping is at the top of his game here, so if you keep up with the onslaught of imaginative choreography and blistering footwork, you’re in for a wild ride.
My favourite moments are the quieter ones. Tai Chi Master works better than it should because of the charm and chemistry between our two leading men. Both Jet Li and Chin Siu-Ho are on top form here, giving off an air of boyish charm and devilish charisma. The comedy interludes, of which there are many, are genuinely funny and make for a refreshing change of pace from the relentless action. I think we’re forgetting something though, that’s right, Michelle Yeoh is given top billing alongside Jet Li and we haven’t even mentioned her yet.
I’m a big fan of Michelle, so it’s disappointing to see one of my favourite female action stars take a backseat in terms of screen time. It’s fair to say that she’s in the shadow of Jet Li's Junbao for much of the movie. This is a Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh picture in name alone, but then, it’s still great to see the pair of them on screen together. Michelle Yeoh fanatics might crave for a little more kick-ass, but Jet Li fans are in for a wild ride of glorious action and over the top showmanship.
Yuen Woo-Ping makes movies like this in his sleep, and fans of early Jet Li fare will lap it up. It’s exhilarating stuff, full to the brim with energy, style, grace and charm. Toss in a sprinkling of humour, not to mention an ‘extended cameo’ from action cinema’s leading lady, and we have a genre classic on our hands. Tai Chi Master is a whole world of fun, so if you’ve yet to sample it for yourself, now's the time to catch up. AW