As the only disciple of Master Yang's (Yu Hai) Tai Chi martial arts style, Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen) has a massive amount of integrity to live up to. Tiger works hard to make a name for his master and his style in the ongoing local martial arts tournament. That is until he's contacted by the very wealthy and extremely mystifying Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) for a security job that is actually an audition for Donaka's underground fighting ring. Denying the chance to use his martial arts for monetary gain, Tiger quickly changes his tune once his master's 600 year old temple faces demolition. However Donaka's job opportunity quickly sends Tiger down a dark path causing a streak of viciousness no one is able to predict.
"Man of Tai Chi" begins with two men pummeling each other to his heart's content as the authorities raid a warehouse. One man refuses to "finish" the other as another masked man enters and deals with the matter himself. Donaka then confronts disappointment the only way he knows how and puts on the search for a new contestant as the authorities realize they've followed yet another false lead.
The Chinese-American martial arts film has this simple story that feels effortless, but is also fairly flawed in its execution. The short and sweet version is that it's the struggle between yin and yang; two opposites attempting to overthrow the other after being brought together by a common thread. Tiger is in this never ending battle between properly releasing his chi and letting power overcome him while Donaka drags Tiger to hell where he taints his soul and it's up to Tiger to choose whether or not to continue going down that path or the one his master has always trained him for. As Master Yang puts it, "Man of Tai Chi" is about perfecting the "harmony of form and spirit" and finding your true path.
The rest of the story is familiar in the sense that it's about an infected individual cleansing himself of the regrettable actions he's recently partaken in. The disappointing factor lies within how quickly and easily Tiger is able to switch gears. There really is no time for atonement for the character. He doesn't really seem to suffer all that much and he's able to conquer his demons seemingly with the flick of a switch or a turn of the page of the script. There's such importance given to clearing your mind and meditating, but as Tiger begins to doubt the purpose of them both he's never seen doing them again yet miraculously becomes the hero of the picture.
Keanu Reeves is so purposely stiff and cold that you can't help but enjoy the Donaka Mark character. He seems to have taken lessons from Nicolas Cage's over the top acting methods and even channels "Ghost Rider" as he points at his TV and loudly proclaims, "Innocent!" He does this reverberating growl at one point that is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Donaka has this undying passion of corrupting innocent individuals that is both fascinating and baffling.
The camera work is quite excellent, especially during the action sequences. The camera usually rotates around the two opponents during a fight scene and features intimate perspectives and fairly dynamic angles. The shots representing passing time are extraordinary, too; the ones that chronicle entire days and nights that seem to wander through the city, duck through telephone wires, sidestep buildings, and finally float through windows. The special effects are noticeably awkward during one very unusual car crash sequence and the fights themselves feature just the right amount of wire work to give the film this perfect balance of outlandish and awesome.
While it is unfortunate that "Man of Tai Chi" doesn't give more screen time to Simon Yam and Iko Uwais and the big revelation of the protagonist feels rushed, the film is extremely entertaining if you can just enjoy it as a simple martial arts film.
"Man of Tai Chi" began playing in Houston on Friday, November 1.