Keanu Reeves | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China, Hong Kong & USA / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 15 / R
Matrix star Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with this thoroughly entertaining martial arts actioner.
Tiger Chen is the last student of his master’s Tai Chi fighting style, though while Tiger excels at combat, his hotheadedness means his master struggles to instil the associated philosophical values. That makes Tiger easy prey for Mark Donaka (Keanu Reeves), a businessman who runs underworld fight clubs and lures our financially-troubled hero into his world. Meanwhile, police inspector Suen Jing Si (Karen Mok), long struggling to prove Donaka’s illegal activities, spies the fundamentally-good Tiger as a way in…
(Before we go on: no, Tai Chi isn’t secretly an awesome fighting style that you mistakenly thought was genteel exercise — part of the film’s plot is that Tiger is the only practitioner who uses it for combat, and everyone is surprised and amazed by it.)
Shot on location in China and Hong Kong, produced through local production companies and performed by native actors, with most of the dialogue in Cantonese and Mandarin, there’s an air of authenticity to Man of Tai Chi’s proceedings that often goes awry in such American-helmed endeavours. That sense may be aided by the familiar-feeling storyline. However, while the film is not exactly innovative or groundbreaking, the plot and characters are gripping enough, the plentiful fights are performed and filmed with aplomb, and Reeves’ direction lends a sense of style to proceedings that isn’t overpowering but is somewhat classy.
Some have opined that it’s over-edited. Early on I thought it was a mite too chopped up (during a plain old dialogue scene, funnily enough), but for most of the film it’s fine. Fast at times, sure, but so’s the fighting. There’s a style and rhythm to it all — some near-montage-like sequences are surely meant to be exactly that — and the fighting is never needlessly obscured, because (unlike in so many Hollywood action movies) these guys can actually do it and Reeves wants to show us that. He really focuses on them, too. These aren’t fights as part of elaborate chase sequences, or action interludes whose drama is reliant on the sheer volume of competitors being offed. Nearly every bout is one-on-one (there’s a single instance of two-on-one), all executed in nondescript rooms or arenas. It’s the straight-up fight choreography that does the talking here.
Most engaging outside of the action is, perhaps, the arc our hero goes on. Tiger is notable for being a flawed protagonist. He’s being led down a path where we believe the possibility that his rashness and anger issues might actually make him into the thing the villain wants him to be. It makes for a more interesting journey for the hero than most films offer these days. As that villain, Reeves is as wooden as ever, but at least here his character is a cold, mysterious businessman — an actor/role marriage not exactly made in heaven, but certainly in acceptability.
A mention also for the score by Kwong Wing Chan. Apparently it’s made up of “Techno-styled, bass-heavy beats” or something (I got that from another review). Not the kind of music I normally listen to for pleasure, but its pounding electronic rhythms fit here, making their presence felt while never crossing into the over-dominance that kind of music is wont to do.
Man of Tai Chi should probably feel derivative and lightweight. Instead, it feels fun, exciting, stylish, and, if not deep, then at least more complex than you might have expected. If you like action movies where people who can actually fight do that, and quite a lot of it too, then this is a really enjoyable experience.