Man of Tai Chi (2013) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Qing Ye, Yu Hai, Sam Lee, Iko Uwais
Director: Keanu Reeves
Screenplay: Michael G. Cooney
Review published October 11, 2013
What initially starts as a traditional, if clunky and amateurish, kung-fu flick eventually comes to life by coming unhinged, in this debut of Keanu Reeves as a feature film director cultivating the project to fruition for nearly half a decade.
The film stars Tiger Chen (Kung Fu Hero, House of Fury), who worked as Reeves' stunt man on The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, as a character with his own name, Tiger Chen, an extremely gifted student of the noble martial arts technique of Tai Chi, which emphasizes defensive moves and graceful calmness. He works hard to uphold the reputation of the Tai Chi life, but soon finds that he must compromise a bit of what he believes in (no fighting for money) in order to save the ancestral temple of Yang (Yu Hai), his master teacher, from being foreclosed on. He reluctantly accepts an offer for quick cash from an underworld figure named Donaka Mark (Reeves, The Day the Earth Stood Still), who is the mastermind behind a closed-circuit martial arts fighting operation that specializes in championship bouts to the death. The more that Tiger progresses further in his matches, the more he ends up liking it, turning his back on the more humble, meditative teachings of Yang.
Man of Tai Chi is pretty wild in terms of its quality, with interesting new ideas mixed with stock clichés, plus Chinese and English dialogue from the script by Michael G. Cooney that might even be snicker-inducing in a comic book aimed at teenagers. The film only really springs to life during the very well-executed fight scenes, which are directed by martial arts film maestro Yuen Woo-ping (Tai Chi II, Iron Monkey). However, given that expectations for the film's quality seemingly lowers by the minute, the film does manage to stabilize out once the storyline goes beyond having Tiger continue to fight in order to save the temple. From here, the film becomes more of a philosophical morality tale, with Tiger having been seduced by the allure of inflicting violence, in a way that is reminiscent somewhat to the seduction of Anakin Skywalker to the ways of the Sith in the Star Wars prequels. It's all foreshadowed during a scene in which Tiger, standing on a Taijitu symbol while sparring with his master, keeps one foot literally on the yin and the other on the yang, implying that the fighter is having an internal struggle with the lighter and darker elements within himself.
The fight scenes are quite spectacular, so if you enjoy martial arts films primarily because they feature athletic, well-choreographed battles, regardless of whether the actual plot is interesting, Man of Tai Chi gets a recommendation. Even supporting man Keanu Reeves, playing a rare villainous role with some appeal, gets into the arena during a key sequence, though the fact that his character seems to be the best of them all in terms of fighting skills follows the video game "boss enemy" logic much more so than anything that makes sense within the film (it should be noted that screenwriter Cooney's prior writing work includes video games), particularly because Reeves is so clearly the least skilled among any of the actors at performing a plausible sequence of action moves. It's a low-aiming endeavor that is likely only meant to sate genre enthusiasts, but any film that features at least a half-dozen fight scenes put together by Yuen Woo-ping is practically worth the price of admission to this crowd regardless of the stale and corny set-up that lies in between.
©2013 Vince Leo