Many years ago, during a cinematic time period called “When The Matrix Movies Were Good,” Keanu Reeves learned kung fu. More specifically, he knew kung fu. Reeves’ love affair with martial arts didn’t end when The Matrix trilogy wrapped up and it’s very clear with his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, that he really knows (and loves) his stuff. It’s also clear that Reeves’ ability to inadvertently craft a cinematic meme that we’ll be enjoying for years to come has not even remotely abated. Keanu Reeves, national treasure.
The plotline of Man of Tai Chi is a strange hybrid of Fight Club and most films that focus on talented young men trying to make it in the world of martial arts fighting. Former stuntman Tiger Hu Chen stars as Tiger Chen Linhu (because why not?), a mild-mannered delivery guy who dabbles in the ancient art of tai chi. As the only successor to the skills taught to him by his also mild-mannered master (Yu Hai, whose most urgent line inquires of Tiger “where is your unfinished chi?”), Tiger has attempted to bring the art of fighting tai chi to some sort of prominence, competing in televised competitions in which he is often made fun for trying to make fighting tai chi a thing (inconvenient, to say the least). It doesn’t seem as if Tiger’s take on the ancient art will pan out, but when he’s asked by a mysterious man to come for a “job interview” that ends up being a battle with a strange fellow in a mirrored room, it suddenly seems that his skills may actually have a place in the fighting world.
Or, more specifically, in the illegal underground fighting world.
Though the film centers on Tiger, it starts with Reeves – or, at least, Reeves in a mask, Reeves as a disembodied voice, Reeves as an underground fight club runner demanding a mighty “finish him!” of one of his battling men that doesn’t quite end the way he’d like. As the mysterious Donaka Mark, Reeves has cast himself as the principal villain of Man of Tai Chi, and he succeeds in the role, as long as the role calls for the weirdly hammy drama that Reeves is so well-suited for delivering. Reeves’ ability to mouth off instantly classic line readings isn’t confined to just his Mortal Kombat-inspired request, however, as he eventually spouts such new classics as “you owe me a life” and an eye-popping guttural scream at a television screen that comes out of nowhere. Leave it to Reeves to allow himself to be strangely quotable and meme-generating, even when he’s attempting to make a deep-thinking martial arts film.
The film’s numerous fight sequences are often flat-out great, with the use of tai chi adding something new and visually interesting to the hand to hand combat, and an emphasis on floor work and lots of grunting adding a level of veracity not often seen in modern martial arts films. Chen’s skills are clearly excellent (even if his appeal as a leading man is limited), and the film’s interest in pitting him against very different combatants – from MMA dudes to taekwondo masters to a pair of flashy jerks – keeps things fresh and moving. Chan Kwong Wing’s pumping, techno-infused score adds to the zip and vigor of the film’s many fight scenes, and the combination of the two unexpectedly delivers.
Jams, memes, and knockouts aside, Man of Tai Chi eventually finds itself occupied with some serious spiritual matters, as Tiger wrestles with his peaceful tai chi side even as his success finds his ego ballooning to unsafe proportions. An on-going police investigation into Mark’s illegal doings (spearheaded by Karen Mok, who is seriously underutilized here) and the looming threat of Mark going nutso and murdering Tiger with his own bare hands (creepy mask and all) keep the drama of the film high, but Reeves’ decision to wrap things up in a one hell of surreal manner yank Man of Tai Chi far away from any chance of it appearing to be grounded. Still, the film is a fair bit more serious and believable than we’d likely expect from Reeves the Director, even if it does eventually crumble into meme-spouting Matrix callbacks.
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