When you think of t’ai chi, you probably think of old Chinese people in a park making slow, sweeping, graceful movements with their arms. (Maybe this image comes to mind even if you’re of Chinese descent, like me.) In Man of Tai Chi, Keanu Reeves is trying to make you think of it as an ass-kicking fighting style instead. The resulting film, Reeves’ directing debut, might not be a very good movie, but as a martial-arts demonstration it’s pretty impressive.
A longtime stunt performer in China and Hollywood, Tiger Hu Chen portrays a character called Tiger, a t’ai chi disciple from Hebei Province who makes a living as a not-terribly-competent bike messenger in Beijing. After winning a few matches in a national martial arts tournament, he catches the eye of Donaka (Reeves), a sybaritic Western business mogul who runs a secret fight club where rich and powerful people watch elite combatants fight each other to the death. Tiger initially refuses Donaka’s pay to participate, but when Donaka threatens to evict his master (Yu Hai) and knock down their 600-year-old temple, our hero acts to save his legacy.
The film is a reunion of sorts for Reeves, Chen, and fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, who all worked together on The Matrix. As a novice director, Reeves shows some promise, moving between scenes with flashy but effective transitions (one referencing the yin-yang symbol). He doesn’t film Yuen’s fights as fluidly as he might, but he’s able to maintain spatial integrity — you always understand what the combatants are doing and where they are in relation to each other. He also grasps the importance of making the fights visually distinct from one another, so the climactic showdown takes place in an open, daylit courtyard, while Tiger’s duel with two guys is in a ritzy nightclub lit by strobes. An empty office space is the backdrop for Tiger’s struggle against an MMA fighter (Jeremy Marinas) who grabs him by his necktie and throws him around.
(Two important life lessons from that last scene: One, never wear a tie to a fight. Two, be suspicious of any job interview where you’re led into an empty room with no furniture.)
Reeves can’t do much about Michael G. Cooney’s script, though, which cribs its plot rather shamelessly from other martial-arts films, including the 1973 Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon. The lone-wolf Hong Kong cop (Karen Mok, who’s way too good for what she’s given to do here) who tries to bust Donaka is just a big pile of clichés, as is the wise old master who tells Tiger to get his rage under control. The cameo appearance by Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption comes to disappointingly little. Reeves’ stardom and screen presence were probably necessary when it came to getting the film made, but he’s disastrously cast as the villain. Real malevolence has never been a part of his repertoire, and as a martial-arts performer, he doesn’t move nearly as well as he did in The Matrix.
The one who comes out of here shining is Chen, a former karate and wushu champion as well as a t’ai chi master. He’s a lithe, liquid presence who’s noticeably smaller and leaner than most of the more muscular fighters whom he faces here. The philosophy of t’ai chi is to redirect the force of an opponent’s blow rather than meet it head on, and Yuen makes some good use out of this style that has been featured in a few martial arts films but hasn’t enjoyed nearly the exposure of other Chinese fighting styles. Some of Chen’s moves are simply astonishing, like the single blow he uses to dispatch a tae kwon do fighter or the one he breaks out against the MMA fighter when he executes a backflip, wraps his legs around the guy’s neck, and then flips him forward onto the ground. Not only is Chen technically dazzling, he also performs with the simmering rage that drives Tiger forward. Ultimately, you judge a martial-arts movie by the quality of the martial arts on display, and by that meter, Man of Tai Chi is a notable success.
Man of Tai Chi
Starring Tiger Hu Chen and Keanu Reeves. Directed by Keanu Reeves. Written by Michael G. Cooney. Rated R.