MAN OF TAI CHI – Fantastic Fest Review
Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, is a slick, carefully choreographed piece of controlled demolition. Brimming with bone crunching fights filmed with an almost Fincher-esque eye for cold precision, the aesthetics alternate between grimy and antiseptic, while the action is never less than arresting. Shot in China (and almost completely in Chinese with English subtitles), Reeves’ heart feels like it’s in the right place, even when screenwriter Michael G. Cooney rolls out every ’90s Van Damme movie cliche in the book. It’s a clash between the passionate and the prosaic, and the end result is mostly enjoyable if also incredibly contrived.
First things first — Man of Thai Chi is a chop-sockey movie, through and through. This isn’t meant as an insult, just a simple statement of fact. Tiger Hu Chen stars as Chen Lin-Hu, the last student of Tai Chi Master Yang (Yu Hai). By day, Tiger works as a delivery man for the Chinese equivalent of DHL. And when he isn’t running packages, Tiger trains for a tournament, through which he hopes to prove that Tai Chi wasn’t simply invented for silly Billy Blanks videos, but is also a tried and true martial art that can be utilized as the world’s most effective style of hand-to-hand combat. He’s an eager student, wanting to jump levels ahead as his master preaches patience. When the two spar, Tiger is always rushing, while Yang urges the young fighter to slow down and never forget that there is a meditative side to the art he studies.
Watching Tiger from afar is ruthless businessman Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). The purveyor of underground no-holds-barred battles between martial artists, he’s a glorified promoter in need of a new star, and spots Tiger participating in a televised tournament. Mark’s last contender turned out to be a rat, refusing to kill his final opponent as he waited for police captain Sun Jingshi (Karen Mok) to come bursting through the door and arrest everyone in the building. When this doesn’t happen, Mark is infuriated and stabs the fighter to death in the locker room, damning him for not being a “warrior”. It’s all very DTV worthy plotting; a simplistic setting of stakes that works well enough to get the ball rolling for Tiger to be recruited and start kicking all sorts of ass on the bloodsport circuit.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is the fact that Reeves barely lets the audience up for air. The fights come fast and furious, as Tiger makes his way through both the legitimate and illegal tournaments simultaneously. Taking a page from The Matrix, The Raid, and several older kung fu staples, each fight operates both as a piece of action-packed entertainment and a dramatic sequence, furthering the narrative while also satiating the audience’s need for lightning-paced violence. Yuen Woo Ping’s work as the film’s action director is distinctly felt, as each fight showcases a new, exhilarating style of martial arts to indulge in. And while the battles are often brutal and relentless, there’s a fluidity to Reeves’ camera that allows the moments of combat to also feel poetic; a stylized dance of death that builds to a semi-satisfying climax.
When you walk into a movie titled Man of Tai Chi, you pretty much know what you’re signing up for. Reeves doesn’t play with the conventions of the kung fu genre too much (or at all, really), opting instead to pay homage to both the films that made him famous as well as genre classics from the past. Tiger’s motivations are never less than honorable (he needs the money to help save his master’s temple from being bulldozed for condominiums), even as he’s pulled deeper and deeper into Mark’s seedy world. And when the final fight (featuring Iko Uwais!) is reached, you’re either completely on board, cheering Tiger to win, or checking your watch, wondering what else you could be spending your time on. A decent enough diversion, Man of Tai Chi is certainly fun, but not a whole lot else.