by Kathie Smith
As the producer of last year's noteworthy documentary Side by Side and as the director of the new martial arts film Man of Tai Chi, Keanu Reeves is taking big steps toward staking a claim independent of a reputation pigeonholed in the inane escapades of Ted Logan and the cardboard catchphrases of Johnny Utah. If Side by Side shows Reeves as genuinely inquisitive, funny and smart, Man of Tai Chi shows his solid skill set as an action film director, appropriating the motifs of kung fu classics with surprising craft to the fight-centric set pieces and refreshing commitment to its pedigree as an international production.
Director: Keanu Reeves
Producers: Lemore Syvan, Zhang Daxing
Writer: Michael G. Cooney
Cinematographer: Elliot Davis
Editor: Derek Hui
Music: Chan Kwong-wing
Cast: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Yu Tai, Ye Qing, Simon Yam, Sam Lee, Iko Uwais, Jeremy Marinas
Countries: USA/China/Hong Kong
Premiere: July 4, 2013 – China
US Theatrical Release: November 1, 2013
US Distributor: Radius - TWC
Man of Tai Chi tells the somewhat routine story of a man with honor manipulated by the evil forces of ego and power. Donaka Mark (Reeves) is a powerful Hong Kong businessman who organizes illegal pay-per-view cage matches that prey upon the participants’ ambitions to create the ultimate kill-or-be-killed scenario. Let down by his last protégé, Donaka is on the hunt for a new fighter to supplement both his high-rolling clients’ appetite and his own amusement. It is during this search that he encounters Tiger (Tiger Chen), an up-and-coming fighter who, much to the dismay of his master, uses the principles of tai chi to steamroll his opponents. Tiger’s potential along with his innocence make him a perfect pawn in Donaka’s scheme of reality MMA exploitation.
Although Tiger competes in state sanctioned kung fu competitions, he makes ends meet by working as a delivery driver in Beijing. Initially he refuses Donaka’s offer to fight for money, calling it dishonorable, but he changes his tune when a developer, likely paid off by Donaka, threatens to tear down his master’s temple, deeming it unsafe and in ill repair. As he muscles one opponent after another, Tiger begins to crave the competition and yields to the lure of quick cash with the excuse of helping his master. Call it the corruption of capitalism if you want, but socio-economic statements are secondary to displaying Chen’s physical dexterity and making the most out of every bone-crushing bout.
Clearly, a large emphasis has been placed on the action, and this is where Man of Tai Chi excels beyond expectations. Casting Chen, a martial arts stuntman who worked on The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, in the lead and tapping Yuen Woo-Ping, one of the best martial arts choreographers alive, as action director ensures a certain caliber to the body kinetics. But it’s also a pleasant surprise that Reeves, with the aid of cinematographer Elliot Davis and editor Derek Hui, is quite adept at shooting these sequences, first establishing the action and adding the right amount of pulsing edits and angles without losing track of the physical logic of hand-to-hand combat. Man of Tai Chi takes its kung fu as seriously as The Grandmaster.
But that is not to say that Reeves is on par with Wong Kar-wai. Man of Tai Chi’s successes are large and loud, so it’s easy to overlook its failures in the layers of drama that intend to pad or augment the action. Most notable is the halfhearted police presence hot on the trail of Donaka’s extracurricular business endeavors, wasting the talents of Hong Kong actors Karen Mok as the earnest detective, Sam Lee as the police computer geek, and Simon Yam as the less-than-reliable police chief. This apathetic attempt to create a cat-and-mouse framework adds up to little more than a plot device that dispels the final fight to a more belabored and inevitable finale between Tiger and Donaka.
Financed in part by the Mainland Chinese studio China Film Group, the film makes the most out of its locations. Even if you aren’t familiar with the respective skylines, the glossy sheen to Hong Kong and the grey haze of Beijing speaks qualitative volumes. It also adds an air of authenticity, which is further augmented by a respect to the locations’ native languages and a brazen fearlessness to subtitles (a compliment that won’t be given to Reeves’ upcoming star vehicle 47 Ronin.)
Chen holds his own in the lead, working his character’s naïve persona to his own limited acting advantage. But as with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport or Jet Li in Fearless, the heavy lifting of the performance is done in the more palpable mechanics of foot and fist, parry and blow, and Chen has that down to an art. The bona fide exhilaration earned from one fight to the next rides on his coattails. Ironically, the least compelling fight comes near the end when Donaka’s more brutish Western aesthetics of combat attempts to dominate Tiger’s finesse. It’s an indulgent moment on Reeves part, but a minor folly in the film’s overall impressive ability to entertain.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)