Written by Michael G. Cooney
Directed by Keanu Reeves
United States/China, 2013
The world of underground fighting is given the cinematic treatment yet again in Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. Set in Beijing, the movie follows the exploits of a kind if slightly misguided young man named Tiger Chen Linhu (Tiger Chen), who works as a postal delivery man by day and practices Tai Chi with his master Yang (Yu Hai) during his time off. Tiger has been seduced by the controversial idea of demonstrating that Tai Chi can be used for pure combat, prompting him to enter a legitimate martial arts tournament. His unexpectedly impressive skills catch the eye of one Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), the multimillionaire owner of a security company who also organizes illegal fighting matches for the pleasure of a high paying, exclusive public. As Tiger is sucked into the world of no holds barred fighting, so to do his honourable principles wilt. Just how far is Tiger willing to go and forsake everything he values in order to prove he is the best?
Keanu Reeves is a Hollywood name that has been around for much longer than most realize. Believe it or not, his breakout role in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure dates back to 1989, a shocking 26 years ago. He witnessed his star rise to soaring heights during the 1990s and early 2000s, especially when the massively successful Matrix films were released. Since then he has lost some of that glorious luster, yet every now and then he partakes in a project that makes him a part of the film conversation yet again. Often derided for his wooden acting style, the fact remains that a lot of people are, till this day, still keenly interested in what Reeves does in the world of film. With Man of Tai Chi he follows in the footsteps of many of his acting brethren by taking a stab at directing. Notwithstanding some of The Matrix’s more memorable sequences, Reeves association with martial arts cinema is tenuous at best, making this choice all the more curious.
While Man of Tai Chi trots along confidently whenever the main subjects of a scene are two powerful contestants launching into a barrage of jumps, kicks and punches, the overall film lacks a cohesive theme to help gel its many ideas together. Compounding this unfortunate issue is a secondary plot involving a police detective (Karen Mok) who obsesses over the thought of finally catching Donaka Mark and landing a final drop kick onto the latter’s clandestine operations. The plot is similarly driven as with Jean-Clause Van-Damme’s Bloodsport in which the Muscles from Brussels engages in an illegal martial arts league whilst authorities try their utmost to make headways in the underground and smash the establishment. Much like in Bloodsport, this side story serves virtually no dramatic or thematic purpose and takes time away from developing what could have been a palatable story of a young man losing his way as bloodlust corrupts his soul, forcing him to discover the path of redemption and renew his altruistic qualities and those of Tai Chi.
Ironically, pre-production commenced as far back as 2008, including scripting. This makes the film’s thin story all the more disappointing. Not only is it thin, but it suffers from being terribly unfocused. It is never made clear why Tiger wants to employ Tai Chi as a combat system or what sort of aforementioned redemption he ever aspires to in the film’s climax. Familiar character beats simply occur seemingly because that is what happens in martial arts movies about underdog contestants. One example among many of the picture’s clumsy ideas if the final line delivered by Reeves’ Donaka Mark about Tiger ‘having it in him all along’, more perplexing than it is serving of dramatic closure, especially considering the character saying the line.
Where the script lets the film down, Keanu Reeves, much to the delight of many an action movie fan, rises to the occasion and does his best to provide Man of Tai Chi with a serious shot in the arm via confident, stylish direction, as well as some comically worthwhile performances (both intentional and otherwise). The cinematography is quite slick, with a couple of clever flourishes peppered throughout to give some scenes extra flavor. Smartly, Reeves never indulges in swanky camera work just for the sake of it, preserving the more artistically-driven exercises for the quieter moments such as transitions. It looks as though the many years spent on film sets and working with a impressive variety of directors has paid off, at least so far as visual presentation is concerned. Some mention should go to the set design that balances utter simplicity and lavishness from one scene to the next. Neither choice is ever distracting and often complements the tone a given scene is trying to commit to.
The fighting scenes themselves are clearly filmed and edited, completely devoid of the intrusive quick-cuts that plague a multitude of modern action extravaganzas. Where a depressing number of filmmakers hack the best moments to bits in the editing room, Reeves and his team actually allow the martial artists to strut their stuff for the viewer. Most of it is wildly impressive, particularly given how Tiger Chen, a practitioner of Tai Chi, is driven to test his might against a host of completely different styles. Some of his opposite numbers engage the skirmishes with far more aggressive techniques than is ordinarily associated with Tai Chi, therefore leading to perhaps the one notable thematic element one can extrapolate: the more violent the opponents become, the more Tiger Chen must reciprocate in style, even though that is not typically what Tai Chi is concerned with. The more fighters Tiger does away with, the more his interpretation of Tai Chi becomes a bastardization of what Master Yang taught. An interesting idea, make no mistake about it, just not one explored fully enough as the plot moves along.
While Tiger Chen Linhu plays the role of the protagonist, it is unlikely his performance is that which most will latch onto. Tiger is bordering on serviceable for what is asked of him, or what could be asked of any martial artist wetting his or her toes in the vastly different field of film acting. Nay, it is Reeves who gives the more memorable performance, not quite for his facial expressions (which are limited as usual) but for the line delivery. Reeves has rarely played antagonists in his career, and therefore to bear witness to his oft-mocked acting style used to play an especially angry and aggressive man spewing dialogue such as ‘You owe me a life!’ is a lot of fun. If there is a tone Reeves gets down pat, it is serious. The lines he gets to spit through clenched teeth are a terrific cocktail of throwaway spurts of viciousness and malice. As has often been the case throughout the two decades and a half, even though it feels easy to lambast Reeves’ acting qualities, there is something oddly compelling about it.
Knowledge of how long the project spent in pre-production makes the laziness of the script even less forgivable than would ordinarily be the case. Add to that a languid police investigation and the result is a story nowhere near as interesting as it could have been. On the flip side, Keanu Reeves proves more than up to the task of directing the fast and furious combat sequences, gifting viewers with clarity and variety with respect to the fighting styles and the sets (a battle set in a luxuriously luminous night club is definitely a highlight). While it fails to bring anything new to the table, the film is a serviceably entertaining romp for its visual qualities.