The first shot of Keanu Reeves’ martial-arts film Man of Tai Chi is of two guys punching each other, so it’s off to a good start. Reeves’ directorial debut isn’t an homage or reinvention of the genre. It sticks fairly close to the essentials, which are fighting followed by more fighting. The threadbare plot is serviceable enough, but the main event is the fights, and they’re impressive. With his first feature, Reeves shows he has the directing chops to pull off some exciting fisticuffs. However, the movie raises the question of whether or not he’s aware that the plot incriminates the audience, and the audience may also wonder if Reeves’ performance is intentionally campy or playing into negative perceptions of the famous actor.
Tiger (Tiger Chen) is an adept student of Tai Chi, a martial art that is traditionally used as “a balance of form and essence”. Tiger wants to use Tai Chi for fighting in order to bring more attention to the art. However, the ability he displays in a professional tournament catches the attention of bad guy Donaka Mark (Reeves). Donaka runs an underground fight league, and he lures in Tiger by providing the cash the young fighter needs to save his Tai Chi temple and support his family. As Tiger fights more and more for the entertainment of Donaka and his wealthy patrons, the “Man of Tai Chi” begins falling towards the dark side. There’s also an almost completely useless subplot involving a Hong Kong cop (Karen Mok) trying to bring down Donaka for his illegal activities.
Like any good martial arts movie, Man of Tai Chi is all about the fights and those fights have to bring the goods. Reeves understands that not only is the choreography important, but so is variety. A majority of the fights take place in a single location (a large carpeted room) but Tiger’s opponents have different skills that will “unlock” the Tai Chi student’s full potential. One memorable fight has Tiger going up against a guy who can deflect hits just by flexing his muscles. Eventually, Reeves graduates Tiger to a thrilling face off against two opponents simultaneously.
People who are fans of action movies and martial arts films know that shooting close-quarters combat is difficult, so some directors lazily shake the camera around as a way to cover up the poor choreography and also make the fight “exciting”. Reeves takes a professional approach where knows how to cut around the fight, and provide the impressive shots featuring surprising moves, and then back all of it with a rocking soundtrack that further emphasizes the hard-hitting smackdowns. We showed up for fights, and Reeves has delivered.
So it’s odd that the villain of the piece is someone who puts together intense fightss and the film’s director plays the character. Donaka is taking a pure form like Tai Chi and then pushing Tiger to corrupt it in order to serve the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty audience. It doesn’t seem like Reeves is parodying the genre since so much work has gone into the fights. It’s possible it could be self-criticism, but again, it seems strange that Reeves would provide an energetic movie but somehow feel guilty for doing it. Ultimately, it’s likely an oversight albeit one that amounts to a strange coincidence.
Reeves’ performance is also perplexing. There’s an unfair perception that Reeves is a bad actor, and that his ability extends to saying, “Whoa.” He’s a charismatic star who’s played a variety of different characters, and I was especially impressed by his dramatic turn in The Gift. Reeves can act, so I’m curious as to why his performance in Man of Tai Chi seems like he forgot how to speak normally. Donaka could have been played by anyone, and presumably Reeves gave himself the part in order to help secure financing. However, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s intentionally going campy. One shot in particular is so over-the-top it makes me believe Reeves was completely aware of basically breaking the fourth wall. Nevertheless, everyone else appears to be playing it straight, so Reeves proves to be a distraction in his own movie.
Thankfully, his growly, hokey performance never interferes with the meat of the picture: fighters beating the living hell out of each other in a way that’s violent but not bloody (Tai Chi apparently allows Tiger to get pummeled on a regular basis but never have a bruise to show for it). I’ll be curious to see what aficionados of the martial-arts genre think of Man of Tai Chi, but as a humble gentleman who likes seeing tough guys use stylish fight moves to beat up other tough guys, Reeves’ has served up a solid punching and kicking fest.
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