Stars: Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen, Iko Uwais
I’m not sure how many of my readers are aware, but I’m a huge fan of fight movies. Anything and everything involving martial arts and/or hand-to-hand combat gets my blood pumping like crazy. That doesn’t mean every movie that has punching or kicking is deemed a great film. There has to be a blend of story and battle that flows seamlessly into the fight sequences. For example, I know several people who enjoyed Never Back Down, but I thought the high school fight club angle was absurdly ridiculous, thus taking away any investment I had with the fights. Compared with a film like The Raid, where the action progresses the story and adds to the stakes at every turn.
Before The Matrix, Keanu Reeves most likely wouldn’t be the first name you would think of when considering martial arts films. Who would’ve thought the guy from Bill & Ted and Point Break would be known for directing these kinds of movies years later. That said, Reeves directorial experience with The Man of Tai Chi isn’t a perfect film debut by any means, but isn’t half bad either. In fact, it shows a ton of great potential for the actor to have a career directing these types of movies.
The story centers on Tiger Chen, who studies the art of Tai Chi under his master Ling Kong. As described by Wikipedia, Tai Chi is a Chinese method of martial arts that focuses on defense abilities as well as improving one’s health. Tiger has strong physical abilities with his training but Master Ling Kong demands he harness the Chi aspects of the art form. If Tiger can’t control his Chi, Ling Kong fears that it might take him down a darker path.
Enter Keanu Reeves who plays one of the very first villain roles I’ve ever seen from him, as the strange and powerful Donaka Mark. In the film, Tiger has an agenda to prove that Tai Chi is more than just a soft form of fighting and takes his training to competition. During a competitive fight, Donaka overviews young Tiger as he defeats an opponent with the use of Tai Chi. Fascinated by the fact he utilizes such a strange fighting technique, as well as possessing an innocent demeanor, Donaka decides to send Tiger an invitation to join his underworld of competitive fighting.
In the invitation, Donaka explains the job is a matter of working security. Tired of working his low-end courier job, Tiger quickly accepts the invite to be interviewed for the position. After passing the interview by kicking the sh*t out of some poor subject’s ass, Donaka request he instead take a job to fight for him for money. Tiger refuses due to a code of Tai Chi that says fighting for money is dishonorable.
This is where the stakes enter the picture. Tiger finds himself forced to fight for Donaka when he discovers the 600 year old temple his Master owns failed city inspection. Due to this circumstance, the temple is labeled as unsafe and is facing demolition if repairs are not made. Tiger has to sacrifice his honor and fight for the money to save his Master’s temple.
Funny thing I noticed about this movie is there is a ton of similarities to Star Wars in The Man of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen’s master is like Obi Wan trying to keep Anakin from heading down the dark path, and realizes he’s vulnerable to that side. Keanu’s character Donaka is like Senator Palpatine who is luring the rage of him, and bring out the worst in Chen and use his Tai Chi in the most dishonorable ways imaginable. With this in mind, Tai Chi is “the force,” and the movie conveys how the fighting style could be executed in two vastly different ways. Master Ling Kong stresses the spiritual side of the fighting and ultimately will always prove more honorably in battle, where Donaka seeks to bring out the relentless physical side of the art-form which will turn Tiger Chen into a monster.
Once Chen enters Keanu’s sadistic fight world, he finds himself pushing his morals an integrity in ways he never considered. This is when some of the best fight sequences get showcased in full coolness. Having made a martial arts short film in the past, I can fully appreciate the work choreographer Yuen Wo Ping put into this film. Ping’s past experience includes major credits such as The Matrix trilogy, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and much more. So it’s not a wonder this guy brought some serious cred to the fight sequences.
I also dug how Keanu used a lot of technical ideas to create tension in the fight scenes. One moment incorporates sights and sounds to increase the dread, as well as a really cool sequence with strobe lights that I wish lasted so much longer. Keanu’s direction is also done well with great coverage on the action, making it easy to tell who is being hurt, as well as seeing the fluidity of the combat.
The Man of Tai Chi isn’t without its faults. I’m not sure if it was intentional- which I think is possible- but Reeves delivers the most over-the-top acting performance for a villain I’ve seen in forever. Seriously, it almost becomes self parody in places. It’s hard to know whether to call this a bad performance because I’m not entirely sure that Reeves was aiming for this execution. That said, I hope it was just Reeves having fun, because this role almost reached Nicholas Cage levels.
Another small thing that disappointed me was the cameo made by Iko Uwais (The Raid), who I was hoping would be able to showcase some his fighting style in this film. Sadly, the opportunity is wasted and felt a tad bit ant-climactic. Of course I think this will only bother those who recognize his lead role from The Raid.
As a whole, I really enjoyed Man of Tai Chi as a fun competitive fight film. It’s not as thrilling as extreme martial arts entries like The Raid, or even some of the best from Jet Li such as Fearless. Still, there is a ton to enjoy here and a lot of great fight sequences that are sure to entertain. If subtitles bother you, then you might not enjoy a majority of this movie due to the film’s multilingual screenplay. That said, if you made it through flicks like Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds, then you’ll be just fine. This is a pretty strong start for Keanu Reeves directing career and I’m curious to see what this guy does next.