Tai Chi Master is a tongue-in-cheek film, but it still has the spirit a good martial arts flick needs in order to work. The movie has a great cast of characters headed by Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Chin Siu Ho (who also teamed up with Li in the awesome Fist of Legend). I like this movie a lot, but it's probably not a film to rent if you're checking out martial arts movies for the first time. The production values are a little rough, which becomes quite evident with the wire-fu acrobatics (as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero). There's also a lot of slapstick humor. Sometimes it's really funny but other times...well let's just say you'll be scratching your head more than once.
What I like best about Tai Chi Master is the friendship between Jun Bao (Li) and Tien Bao (Ho) which sits at the core of the film. Li and Ho have great chemistry, and it's no surprise they have worked together more than once. Jun and Tien become instant friends when they meet as children and find they share a deep fascination and dedication for the martial arts. Jun is a naive and disciplined, while Tien is mischievous and ambitious. As young men, they go out into the world and take wildly different paths which lead them into fundamental conflict with one another. The connection between the characters and the two male leads is what makes the film work.
The plot is good, yet still works in serving up lots of fight sequences. My only gripe there is that, with a star like Li, it's hard to understand why they went so over the top with some of the wire-fu. I'd have been much happier just watching Li do his thing without the effects. Wire-fu often requires too many slo-mos and cuts to work well in a movie that's a rough in the production department. A heavier focus on real fighting would have made the movie even stronger. I imagine part of the reason for the choice is that with the tongue-in-cheek tone, the action sequences needed to be a bit more cotton candy. Think an American action movie with their sometimes over-the-top stunts.
By the way, make sure you watch/buy the uncut international version with the option to watch in the original language with English subtitles. If you want dubbed English, you'll have the choice. I mention this because many martial arts movies are chopped and hacked for US audiences and sometimes a way to tell if you're getting something like that is that they don't offer Chinese with English subtitles as an option. I bought Dragon Dynasty's Special Collector's Edition of Tai Chi Master to ensure I got the real deal.