Man of Tai Chi
Original title: 太极侠
Countries: USA, Hong Kong, China
Languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin
Genre: Martial Arts
Director: Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with Man of Tai Chi. Claiming to be a big fan of Kung-fu cinema, the man formerly known as Neo made sure to take special care of this film’s fight sequences. He brings to the big screen the Tai Chi mastery of “Tiger” Chen, whose name he shares with his character in Man of Tai Chi. Reeves and Chen have worked together on the set of The Matrix, in which the latter worked as a stuntman. The combo team up with fellow Matrix veteran Yuen Wo Ping, who served as the action director.
The film follows Tiger Chen, an ambitious student of Ling Kong Tai Chi under the guidance of Master Yang (Yu Hai). Though fully capable in his martial arts training when it comes to the body, Tiger Chen has yet to fully harness the power of the mind, making the elderly master fear for his well-being.
This doesn’t stop Tiger Chen from competing in the local Wulin tournament, in which he is determined to prove the effectiveness of his style. His physical superiority over his opponents catches the eye of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a mysterious business man. Donaka offers Tiger a job that promises to pay mountains of money, but Tiger is faced with difficult decision when finds out the job is to be a contestant in an underground fighting ring of death.
A joint venture between Hong Kong, mainland China, and the United States, Man of Tai Chi is a reflection of Keanu Reeves’ love of martial arts cinema. But, what makes Man of Tai Chi special is the conflicts and hurdles that the main character, Tiger Chen, must overcome. The film takes a dip into the dark and gritty, with even Reeves portraying a cruel and unforgiving businessman, way different from the types of characters we’re used to seeing him play.
The martial arts choreography have a feel of nostalgia to them; they feel grounded without so much flash like modern day martial arts films’. They incorporate a bit of a MMA element by featuring grapples and submission holds, and the camerawork during the fight scenes was handled with extreme care.
However, while some martial arts films are strong when it comes to fight choreography, it’s quite common for the story to take a dip, many being a hit or miss. Man of Tai Chi doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking when it comes to its plot, but it somehow can manage to pull one in. It’s the classic tale of a pure-hearted soul vulnerable to temptation, corruption, and redemption. Tiger Chen, while being fascinatingly strong with his body, has a lack of control with his mind, allowing for the villainous Donaka to reach in and darken Tiger’s heart.
A big reason why it’s so easy to get pulled into the story of Man of Tai Chi is because of not only the carefully crafted fight scenes and camerawork, but also the music of Chan Kwong Wing, known for his compositions for many films, including the legendary Infernal Affairs series from Hong Kong. The music adds a thick atmospheric layer to the story, making it really engrossing and hard to look away.
Unfortunately, some of the characters were a bit underdeveloped, or felt as if they were added just for the sake of being added. Some of these characters in particular are Qing Ye‘s Qing Sha, Tiger Chen’s (girl)friend (it wasn’t really clear), and Simon Yam‘s Superintendent Wong, who seemed to only be there as a plot device and for star power.
It would have been nice to see a better relationship develop between the characters of Tiger Chen and Qing Ye. It would have added a few more layers to Tiger’s character, and all in all please the eyes of viewers who get tired of seeing sweaty men throw each other around.
Overall, the acting deserves some applause. Keanu Reeves did commendably as the evil Donaka, but memories of Bill and Ted and dialog that start with the words “I know Kung-fu” can prevent one from fully believing the character. Tiger Chen, despite still transitioning from the role of stuntman to lead character, did a great job. It’s still early to tell whether or not the film will propel him to the international eye like many of the famous names in martial arts cinema, but it’s definitely a big step.
Man of Tai Chi is Keanu Reeve’s directorial debut. Though loaded with a lot of things that can be improved upon, it was a great and overall satisfying first work.
Watch this film…
…if you think you haven’t seen a good American martial arts film since Bloodsport.