Expectations are a funny thing, but while it’s never fun to go into a movie excited only to leave it a disappointed and broken man (I’m looking at you Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut) it’s an absolute delight to enter a theater anticipating very little and then exit it smiling, happy, and already excited to see the film again.
Enter Keanu Reeves‘ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. Yeah, I was surprised too.
Chen Lin-hu (Tiger Hu Chen) is a blue collar delivery man who spends his free time training his tai chi skills at a remote temple alongside his master, Yang (Yu Hai). Chen is participating in a national televised tournament, and while Master Yang doesn’t approve of tai chi being used for fighting Chen sees it as an opportunity to spread the word on a dying form of martial arts. It works, albeit not quite how Chen envisions it, and he soon receives an offer to join Donaka Mark’s (Reeves) corporation as a fighter. The wins and big payouts start almost immediately, but when the truth of Donaka’s business model is revealed Chen is forced to re-evaluate his position with the company.
“A fight you will get.”
The plot gets only slightly more complicated than that with the introduction of a persistent detective (Karen Mok) intent on bringing Donaka down and some pesky developers hoping to turn the temple into condos. The story here is an extremely well-tread one about a student getting too big for his britches and a shadowy world of pay-per-view death matches, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make one that looks and spins beautifully.
This is a Hong Kong martial arts film through and through, and it’s one of the best contemporary-set ones in recent years too thanks to a sharp look, several highly impressive fight scenes, and a ridiculously entertaining supporting performance from Reeves. Seriously, it’s almost as if he recognized the genius of Chris Klein’s performance in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, added a dollop of Yoda, and then threw on a coat made from incredibly thick skin. You will laugh, a lot, and Reeves is very much in on the joke. Sure he’s stiff and overwrought, but for a white actor in a predominantly Asian film he’s a regular Laurence Olivier. (And if we don’t get an updated meme of Reeves sitting at his desk and swiping “Sad Keanu” images on his iPad after this movie releases I’ll be highly disappointed in you internet.)
While Reeves brings the laughs it’s Chen who delivers on the fighting with an assist from action director/choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. The two met on the second and third Matrix films where Chen worked on the stunt team. His fighting style is tai chi-based, and while most of us won’t be able to discern specific moves as belonging to specific styles all that matters in the end is that Chen is a very believable ass kicker. His punches are a blur, and his flips, grabs, and takedowns show a mastery of balance and weight shifting that would make a Wallenda jealous. He’s competent enough on the dramatic front too, and with any luck this introductory showpiece will get him some more big gigs in the very near future.
Reeves directs with equal competence, and as with his single fight in the film he avoids embarrassing himself thanks to an exhibition of core talent behind the camera. He lacks anything resembling a style, but he manages to deliver a movie that looks good more often than it doesn’t. That said, the film suffers mildly from a few terrifically bad CGI scenes including a car accident and an utterly unnecessary transition shot aboard a freighter.
It’s worth mentioning again that the story is not just simple, but occasionally blindingly so. If you demand a strong narrative instead of simply preferring it then go ahead and cross this one off your list right now, but if you watch fight films primarily for the fights then Man of Tai Chi will not disappoint. In fact it may just do the opposite and entertain the hell out of you. Donaka out.
The Upside: Fantastically choreographed and executed fight scenes; Keanu Reeves even acquits himself well in his fight scene; Reeves is also hilarious
The Downside: Generic plot; a few instances of unfinished or incredibly sloppy CGI; some wire work
On the Side: Keanu Reeves debated Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League on the subject of Tai Chi during this year’s Fantastic Fest Debates. Then League got in the ring and fought Tiger Chen.