If you’re wondering where Keanu Reeves has been the last several years, a lot of his time has been spent working on this movie. It’s his directorial debut and he’s been working on it one way or another for five years.
It’s a by-the-numbers martial arts/fighting movie with a couple noticeable shortcomings in the budget, but the movie is made with care.
A skilled Tai Chi protégé named Tiger Chen works an unsatisfying job as a deliveryman and is competing in a prestigious martial arts championship. Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), head of a wealthy security company, sees one of his matches and offers Chen a job fighting for money in some kind of UFC for rich audiences that Donaka secretly runs out of his office.
Tiger Chen is played by stunt man Tiger Chen, a friend of Reeves who worked with him on the “Matrix” movies. Apparently “Man of Tai Chi” was inspired in some way by Chen’s real life, hence that he’s playing a character named after himself.
Naturally, Chen is conflicted by his new job because Tai Chi is about harmony and fighting is about violence. But the money’s great and he uses it to better his dojo and buy things for his parents. But we know from the opening scene that these fights eventually escalate to death matches and Chen has a moral quandary with that.
This is all overly familiar material but it plays well. There’s been a recent resonance in Hong Kong action movies that have been characterized by strong production values that trump lesser scripts. “Man of Tai Chi” capitalizes on this energy with strikingly good colour, a couple of nice sets, pretty good choreography, and is paced too quickly to notice its triteness.
Reeves must be a student of Hong Kong action movies and directs this one as if he’s a seasoned Hong Kong filmmaker. There’s one American action movie he likes, “The Matrix,” which he pays homage to in one scene, which is a little weird to see since after all, Reeves stared in the movie, and in the homage scene he’s doing a move pretty close to what his character in “The Matrix” did.
The movie takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai and Reeves uses a blend of Chinese and English to make things seem more authentic. His character seems to speak English only but the other characters mostly speak Mandarin and Cantonese to each other.
Tai Chi can in fact be sped up for fighting and some YouTube videos show that it looks pretty cool in fast motion. But this movie doesn’t really show it off. Although the fight choreography is very good, I didn’t see anything distinctive about Chen’s Tai Chi as compared to the other styles showcased in the movie.
The only disappointing choreography comes in the inevitable final fight between Donaka and Chen (spoiler!). Reeves can’t quite keep up with the speed of the other actors, which makes this scene seem a little slow and deliberate despite that it’s the boss fight. In fact, he has a stiff quality throughout the movie, even for him.
Reeves knows what he’s doing with this material. He doesn’t strive to do anything different with the genre, he’s content to make a formulaic martial arts movie, but as I said, he puts a lot into it and comes up with a good one.
*** (out of 4)
-The Raid 2
David Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.