Man of Tai Chi’s plot is simple enough: Tiger Chen is invited by the hilariously named Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) to take place in televised fights with fighters all over the world. Unbeknownst to Chen, the loser is killed once the match is over. While this is hardly the first time a film has used reality television as the basis for human cruelty, there is a rather unsubtle theme of anti-capitalism that runs throughout the film. It’s hard to not consider that Donaka, a white male, enticing foreign athletes to fight in his arenas, embodies a sort of gentrification that strips the martial arts of all of its eastern mysticism in favor of brutal violence. I don’t think Tai Chi explores this any further than that. The film is more concerned with Tiger Chen beating the crap out of whomever has the misfortune of taking him on. But it does give the film a bit more substance than the average DTV action film.
But people watch these movies for the fights, and the biggest question is whether or not Keanu delivered on that front. Thankfully the fights are well-directed, which most likely proved to be a relief to Keanu and his camera crew as, initially, Tai Chi was meant to implement the use of a radical camera rig that would allow fight scenes to be captured entirely without having to resort to cutting and editing to get shots that a normal camera couldn’t get. It didn’t work out, as the camera rig was far too large to actually use for the film. Still, Keanu has a good eye for shooting action, and each fight is given space to breathe. The audience is allowed to appreciate the fairly awesome fight choreography on display–something American action films could learn a lesson or two from. But it’s Tiger Chen that makes each fight an exciting thing to watch–and he’s not that bad of an actor as well. The movie tries a bit hard to make Chen a lovable underdog–he has a crappy job, gets yelled at by his superiors, and is about to lose the monastery he trains in–but Chen makes the transition from scrappy underdog to an unstoppable rage machine. The metamorphosis is pretty impressive, and adds a surprising amount of character depth that I wasn’t expecting from the movie.
For all it’s strengths, Man of Tai Chi is not perfect; Keanu’s directing feels somewhat inconsistent. There are some fights that look muddled, particularly a two-on-one fight that relies too much on jerky editing and shaky cam, and the sudden inclusion of Wuxia elements–a genre of Chinese Martial arts film where its actors incorporate over-the-top fighting styles–that doesn’t work well with the generally realistic fights portrayed earlier in the film. By far the biggest stumble is Mr. Reeves himself, who co-stars as the lead villain, Donaka Mark. Reeves may be best behind the camera (à la Ben Affleck), but he’s limited as an actor, and it certainly shows in this film. when Keanu tries to pull off menacing, he comes off every bit as robotic as he’s routinely been mocked for. Worse, the film’s climatic battle between Reeves and Tiger Chen actually expects us to believe that Reeves is a formidable match for the “Man of Tai Chi,” and incorporates the worst habits of the genre: slow-motion, rapid editing, and (ugh) wire-fighting. While I understand that Reeves probably couldn’t help himself, he really should have left the villain to someone more physically capable.
Man of Tai Chi is no The Raid: Redemption. Still, it’s a fun martial arts film in its own right and makes a strong case that Keanu Reeves belongs behind the camera.