MAN OF TAI CHI-- 2 STARS
In the five years since the bomb that was the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the unremarkable Street Kings, Keanu Reeves has been a bit of a reclusive former box office titan, hiding in B-movies like Generation Um... and Henry's Crime. Those days of The Matrix trilogy seem longer ago than the ten years since its actual conclusion. Still, Keanu is not the first, nor will he be the last, performer to reemerge from obscurity with renewed creative vigor.
Reeves has two features this second half of 2013. The headliner is 47 Ronin, a samurai spectacle slotted to join the blockbusters on Christmas Day with a wide release. The other is the smaller-scale Man of Tai Chi, which premiered at screenings in competition at the Beijing, Cannes, and Toronto Film Festivals. The film is Keanu's directorial debut is now playing in limited release here in the United States (including three locations here in the Chicagoland area) concurrently with Video On Demand offerings on several platforms.
Man of Tai Chi is loosely based on the life of its star Tiger Hu Chen, one of the prominent stuntmen from The Matrix trilogy that Reeves befriended. Tiger is a bright student in the martial art style of tai chi. For the uninformed, tai chi is a slower, softer, more internal martial art style that calls upon one's inner "chi/qi," or life energy, for defensive and mental focus. It's a style not known for its offense. Tiger is the sole pupil of master Ling Kong, who recognizes Tiger's physical prowess, but questions his mental mindset for the discipline.
When Tiger is not busting his butt as a thankless delivery courier, he competes in Hong Kong martial arts tournaments on television and has become a bit of a minor star. His unique use of tai chi in competition catches the attention of Donaka Mark (Reeves himself), a mysterious promoter who stages and films elaborate underground fighting for a private and high-paying international online audience. His shadowy character is being watched by the local authorities for possible illegal activities by a staunch female detective (Karen Mok).
In need of money to support his family and avert the demolition of his master's 600-year-old temple, Tiger reluctantly agrees to Donaka's fight offers. Unbeknownst to him, Donaka documents his every move in and out the fighting as some sort of special attraction and character study. As Tiger takes on all comers, the intensity of these fights gets to him and clouds the softer side of his chi. He ignores the meditation and disgraces his master. Tiger is in too deep and has to dig his way out to save himself from Donaka's influential control.
Tiger Chen gives a star-making performance in Man of Tai Chi, in what is very likely his debut to American audiences. His talent is immeasurable and his fighting abilities are endlessly watchable. The crisp fight scenes staged by Chen and framed by Reeves are some of the best seen in years. Filmed fluidly and instinctively with the right touches of slow motion, Man of Tai Chi's fight scenes thankfully lack most of the overused, overpowering, and cheesy special effects that muddle other efforts in bigger and more expensive films. They get right to business and cut to core with a nice visceral potency. The ending clash you expect coming between Chen and Reeves himself doesn't disappoint as a climax.
While the fights are well and good, it's the rest of Man of Tai Chi that's a muddled mess. Reeves' villain is really over the top as a twisted kind of puppeteer toying with peoples' lives for no discernible reasons outside of money and power. While he doesn't play to the camera like a Jon Voight in Anaconda, his short, tough-talk dialogue frequently lands with a near-humorous thud. The powerless cops, a gullible main character, and a wimpy flirty romance just make everything look sloppy, especially if this is the guy winning everything as the bad guy.
Man of Tai Chi is a nice niche flick for fight fans. Thanks to the stellar fight scenes and a sharp eye for speed, this isn't entirely a bomb for Keanu Reeves in his directing debut. He's sure isn't Ben Affleck yet and any potential in that direction is cloudy, at best. Put Man of Tai Chi right around where Harlem Nights is for Eddie Murphy as a director. While newcomer Tiger Chen comes out memorably, it's a film with some moments, but not much to remember. Start crossing your fingers for 47 Ronin being a step higher.
LESSON #1: AN AUDIENCE'S FETISH-LIKE THIRST FOR COMPETITION-- Man of Tai Chi isn't as upfront and pandering about this fetish the way Real Steel overtly is from a few years ago with its yelling and obsessive crowds, but we know the demand for this type of bloodsport is there. While the audiences are unseen, the effects and pressures are not. Necks get broken and dollars get made.
LESSON #2: THE FINE LINE BETWEEN A FIGHTER AND A WARRIOR-- Keanu's villain likes to separate these two paths that a martial artist can take. The competition of skill is worthy of an audience, but a true fight to attack and survive is the next level. Like the ring announcer says, one fights for reason and the other for purpose.
LESSON #3: WHEN A PURE-HEARTED MAN LOSES HIS WAY-- There's nothing wrong with Tiger having skill for his martial art and allowing it to serve him in friendly competition. However, when he takes on a darker path of higher stakes fighting, he becomes blinded by power, victory, and money. He loses the inner mental stability that his tai chi background stresses.