Although it’s nothing groundbreaking, Man of Tai Chi is really good at what it does and a very strong directorial debut by Keanu Reeves.
I like Keanu Reeves. I know he always seems to get a bad rep by film lovers and movie-goers for frequently giving stiff and emotionally-restrained performances, but I really like him. There’s just something about him that makes me happy or comforted when he pops up in movies – that same “thing” I recently discovered, round the time of Chef in fact, is also possessed by one Scarlett Johannson, so it’s good company to be in. Plus, regardless of his performance, he frequently picks interesting films that end up far better than they should have been. Bill & Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, Side By Side, (for me, anyway) 47 Ronin. Say what you like, the guy’s interesting and, for me, his appearance in a film is cause for me to sit up and pay attention.
So when news breaks that Reeves has decided to make a martial arts film, his first directorial effort and partly financed out of his own back pocket, loosely based on his Matrix stunt team best friend Tiger Chen and starring Chen as himself and Reeves as the villain of the piece… yeah, you can consider all of my attention appropriately raised. My interest has been caught; and if the film itself is actually any good, that’s kind of a bonus, really. And the film itself is good, it’s really good. Although there’s little you won’t have seen in numerous other martial arts films, Man of Tai Chi is a damn great one with good performances, strong fight scenes and confident direction.
Tiger Chen plays, well, Tiger Chen, a delivery courier and one of the last practitioners of Ling Kong Tai Chi. Tiger wants to demonstrate to the world its effectiveness as a combat martial art, instead of just as an exercise or a meditation technique, much to the disapproval of his master (Yu Hai). Opportunity comes in the form of the total sociopath known as Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who offers Tiger the chance to come and fight for him in an illegal underground fight club whose matches are (what else) streamed to a secret uber-rich clientele. Tiger refuses, noting that using Tai Chi to fight for money is dishonourable, but his hand is forced when his master’s temple is branded a safety hazard and the repairs required are ludicrously expensive. Time passes and Chen starts to realise that he really likes fighting, and the freedom that fighting for Donaka gives him, ends up in the crosshairs of Hong Kong Detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Wok) who has been relentlessly pursuing Donaka for years, and you can probably guess where things are going to go from here.
Yes, Man of Tai Chi is rather predictable. If you have ever seen a martial arts picture involving an underground fighting tournament or any film about the corrupting influence of power, you will likely be able to call the film’s story beats down to the second. There is a very clever twist about exactly what Donaka is offering to his clients but you’ll probably still figure that out about 40-or-so minutes into the movie (I know I did, at any rate). That predictability isn’t particularly an issue, mind. In fact, it ends up making the film feel more like a loving homage than anything else. Tiger takes rather a bit too long to figure out that something’s up with the organisation he’s fighting in and that maybe there’s some semblance of a connection between the timing of the planning submission and the entrance of Donaka into his life, but it’s fine. It works for the genre and the reveal late in the game probably wouldn’t work as well if Tiger were less naive.
Besides, you’re not watching a film entitled Man of Tai Chi for groundbreaking and original plotting. You’re most likely here for the fight scenes and, in that case, you’re going to get more than your money’s worth. The choreography is handled by Yeun Woo-Ping and he’s clearly not content to just coast on past successes, here. Every fight, no matter how short, tells a good story and they get a lot of mileage out of pitting Tai Chi up against various different styles of martial arts and showing how Tiger is able to best them. Choreography is kept predominately realistic with wire-work being a rare but noticeable (but not unwelcome) occurrence which keeps proceedings grounded and full of impact. Standout fights include Tiger’s “interview” for Donaka which gets a lot of mileage out of Tiger turning up in a suit and tie, a fantastic sequence in which Tiger has to fight two guys at once and is notable just as much for its lighting and set design as it is for the story told by the fight itself, a sequence where Tiger duels with his master, and the final fight between Donaka and Tiger which is protracted but very well-paced.
Reeves’ direction of the fights is extremely assured, obviously indebted to the Wachowskis and martial arts cinema at large. Takes are longer than average, shots are steady and clear at all-times but still dynamic when they need to be. There’s a very well-crafted sense of space and his camera constantly darts around in order to find the best possible viewpoint of the action. Close-ups and medium close-ups are deployed when necessary but aren’t limited to showing fighter reactions or individual strikes before cutting back to master shots, thanks predominately to the longer takes. Fight pacing is also well-done, longer ones definitely feel longer but they don’t drag, they’re always clearly building to either the next character beat or the fight’s climax. Reeves has learned well and the quality of the fight scenes really do disguise the fact that this is being made by a first-timer. The one exception is in regards to the usage of slo-mo which is mainly withheld until the final fight but is egregiously and distractingly deployed. Oh, and there’s one instance of super-slo-mo, during the otherwise excellent duel between Tiger and his master, and it in actuality just looks like normal-speed footage where everybody moved reeeeeeaallly slllooooooowwwwwllly; it’s campy in a bad way.
Outside of the fight scenes, things are still good but sometimes noticeable as the work of a first-timer. Reeves does have a decent grasp of pacing, but he’s not quite there yet. This is a film that runs 105 minutes but feels like one that stretches just over two hours; there are sequences where the film sags a bit, it’s pretty much all necessary but it still drags at points. The script is really on-the-nose which is fine, again let me refer you to Tiger’s duel with his master, so long as dialogue isn’t involved which is, at times, clunky and unnatural. Editing is mostly fine, with the stand-out being a montage where Tiger’s experience fighting in Donaka’s league ends up bleeding over into his fights in a professional martial arts tournament, but he occasionally makes some strange decisions – unnecessary shots, random jump cuts, momentary lapses in scene geography, the aforementioned super-slo-mo – that are more distracting than stylistic. Cinematography and music, however, are great and Reeves’ direction is never anything less than competent. It’s all very confident, very learned, if I hadn’t known that this was his first time behind the camera, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Oh, and whilst I’m nitpicking, there’s a car-crash late on in the film that is done with the cheapest CG money can buy. Considering how the rest of the film is so slick and sleek, in a way that’s more befitting a $30 million budget than the $15 million the film sports, it’s rather jarring and reduces the scene to something that’s, in all honesty, pretty laughable.
Finally, there are our two lead performances. Tiger Chen turns out to be a very capable leading man. A lot of the film’s narrative and character arc depends upon Tiger’s (the character) facial expressions and he’s very adept at them; going from kind-natured earnestness to hardened anger-fuelled rage and back again in a way that’s much subtler than that sounds (and should be) and relatively nuanced. Plus, you know, he’s got a very commanding screen presence during fight scenes. Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, is once again very stoic and reserved but, this time, it immeasurably helps his character, painting Donaka as a complete and total sociopath. His presence is creepy and exudes authority and Reeves seems to be having the time of his life sneering his way through such a thoroughly detestable character; it’s a really strong performance.
Man of Tai Chi has been sent straight-to-DVD here in the UK, which commonly leads to the perception that the film in question is poor-quality tripe looking to rip you off of your hard-earned cash. And it’s a shame that people may end up thinking that because Man of Tai Chi is better than at least 80% of the films I have seen in cinemas so far this year and deserves open minds and willing chances. It’s a very confidently directed, if a little formulaic, martial arts flick with great fight sequences and strong lead performances. I really enjoyed this one, folks, and highly recommend you seek it out. Don’t let the botched release put you off, this is absolutely worth your time.
Man of Tai Chi is available now to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Callie Petch buried our heart in the attic of your daddy’s house.