Although heavily westernized, Keanu Reeves’ fictional directorial debut Man of Tai Chi will hold some thrills and excitement for those who aren’t too picky about their martial arts epics. It never really does much to set itself apart from a plethora of other films that involve a plucky young martial arts practitioner honing his craft to perfection, nearly selling his soul, and ultimately getting revenge over someone who wanted to make him unwittingly into a monster, but it’s a novel addition to the canon, well directed by someone who has clearly picked up a few neat tricks along the way.
Humble courier Tiger Chen has been on the road to become a master of Tai Chi, a martial art known more for defensive techniques and meditative slowness rather than brute force. He’s a skilled fighter, but when the temple he learns at is threatened with razing, Tiger enters into an unholy agreement with Donaka (Reeves), a security consultant running brutal underground fights on the side, sometimes to the death. Donaka tries to turn Tiger into an online celebrity and a killer, but can the innocent young man resist the temptation?
Everything about the story to Man of Tai Chi is classical in terms of how boilerplate it all appears. Of course Chen isn’t ready to face this shady fight club on his own, and he still has a lot to learn about Tai Chi that his new, impeccably tailored boss can’t provide. It won’t be a mystery to anyone over the age of six who really wants the temple torn down because it isn’t up to code, and the message about gentrification permeates the story quite obviously and unsubtly. An entire subplot about a disgraced female cop who was unable to bust Donaka and lost the case due to lack of evidence is exactly the kind of thing a film sets up and then forgets about until the plot needs an absolute out. Even when it comes to the fight sequences, every opponent is a stereotype. There the black guy, the big guy, the Olympic guy, the guy who feels no pain, etc. There are some interesting things about Reeves’ film, but video game writer Michael G. Cooney’s screenplay definitely isn’t one of them.
To Reeves’ credit, he seems to know he’s not going to get much out of the story from bell to bell with the material, so he at least has the sense to make the film around it feel fleet and fun instead of an overly serious and dire tone. The fights, courtesy of master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, are all uniformly great and well executed, with the strange exception of one towards the end that ultimately never happens because of Chen’s change of heart that should have involved the most recognizable fighter in the film, Iko Uwias, star of The Raid: Redemption. It’s kind of a bold move on Reeves’ part to almost blow off his climax, but since the obvious final fight has to be between his baddie and Chen, it also uneasily feels a bit more like a slapped together ending out of either necessity or pacing issues. It should go without saying that revealing where the movie heads spoils nothing because even without foreshadowing this knowledge of the film’s ultimate endgame is never unquestionable.
As an actor, Reeves has a blast hamming it up as the supercilious Svengali, and his line reading of “you owe me a life” looks to have already sold the film as a minor cult classic before most people have even seen it. Chen does some fine works as the hero, both physically and emotionally, doing more than just going through the motions as an optimistic innocent unaware that he’s slowly being turned into a blood thirsty killer for the sake of fun and profit.
It’s all a fun enough diversion, but it’s a shame that Reeves couldn’t come up with something better than the clearing of such a low bar. Man of Tai Chi screams out to either be an over the top, plotless bit of gonzo fun or a suited up and respectful epic. Despite being proficient enough to pull off the more difficult technical elements of the film (something his editor almost sabotages on a few occasions), Reeves’ film simply falls into a sort of shrug-worthy middle ground. It’s a bit pat, repetitive, and ultimately anti-climactic, but since Reeves made it, it will likely have a longer shelf life than the hundreds of other martial arts films that manage to do the exact same things with the exact same degree of success.