Man of Tai Chi follows Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen), a student of Tai Chi who has the ambition of proving that his traditionally passive style can be a formidable system of martial arts combat. Warned by his master that his ambition may be too great (in place of balance in humility), Tiger nonetheless pursues his goal, enlisting in a local martial arts competition.
However, when the competition reveals the skills possessed by “The Man of Tai Chi”, it has the unforeseen consequence of catching the attention of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a powerful businessman who moonlights by operating a high-stakes illegal fighting circuit. Donaka thinks that in Tiger he has found a martial arts master with the killer edge – and as Tiger is drawn into the web of underground fighting, he begins to discover that Donaka’s instincts about his true nature may indeed be on the mark.
As the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves, Man of Tai Chi is a somewhat confused mishmash of filmmaking styles and concepts – but thankfully, one of those concepts is top-notch fight choreography. The script by video game writer Michael G. Cooney (Resident Evil 6, Devil May Cry 4) is actually a fairly well-conceived character drama that offers real progression and development – albeit, according to some pretty conventional martial arts movie tropes. But simplicity and convention prove to be effective, offering a tried-and-true roadmap for a film that is, in many other ways, utterly unsure of itself.
Man of Tai Chi shines brightest in its middle act, when Tiger embarks upon an opponent-by-opponent quest to kick-ass and take names, pitting his Tai Chi style against various other popular styles of fighting. Those sequences are probably the biggest selling point of the movie, thanks to legendary action director/fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix) and a combination of hardcore stuntmen and some real-life elite fighters. Indeed, as if playing a solo game of Street Fighter, Tekken - or any of the other popular fight-genre video games – the rapid progression of visceral combat between simplistic fighting caricatures (MMA guy, Tiger-style guy, etc.) is the type of basic payoff that fans of the genre expect.
Beyond that meat in the middle, however, there is very little quality film to be found. Man of Tai Chi (like its director) is the product of two worlds, but manages to be at odds with itself rather then finding balance. When showcasing sequences featuring Reeves and his underground fighting world, the movie looks every bit like a sleek Hollywood action flick; however, when it delves into Tiger’s world (and the accompanying Asian culture story beats and themes) the movie takes on the budgeted look and overall style of a Hong Kong martial arts B-movie. It’s a glaring (and strange) disparity – a sign that Reeves is still tinkering with various elements of filmmaking in an attempt to find a style and voice that is uniquely his own.
As for Reeves in front of the camera? It’s unclear whether or not his stiff, deadpan delivery is an attempt at real characterization or unabashed acknowledgment and send-up of his own screen persona… but it’s definitely strange. Stoic sociopath one moment, violent warrior the next – sprinklings of Buddhist musings and interior decorating – the character is just offbeat and strange down to his very name (“Donaka Mark”?). And sure, Keanu was a surprise with his martial arts abilities when The Matrix came out in 1999; but in a modern, post-Raid: Redemption world, his fisticuffs just don’t cut it on the same level, which is readily apparent when actual martial artists and stunt experts like Tiger Hu Chen and Raid: Redemption star Iko Uwais are standing next to him onscreen. To that end, the movie’s climatic fight is anything but…
Martial artist stuntman Tiger Hu Chen manages to give a good leading man performance. He creates the necessary complexity to make Tiger’s journey into the heart of Tai Chi darkness a believable and compelling event, laced with an amount of subtly and control that is surprising for an actor whose trademark is physicality. Other than Chen and Reeves, it’s only Karen Mok (Shaolin Soccer) who stands out from the herd of bruised and bloodied athletes, playing chip-on-her-shoulder detective Sun Jingshi. Though regulated to the movie’s B-storyline thread, Mok has the charisma to make the deviations into her scenes worthwhile.
In the end, Man of Tai Chi is an okay way for fans of the genre to kill an afternoon, as they morbidly explore the possibility of Keanu Reeves, the action movie director. Reeves is not yet the bridge between east and west moviemaking he’s aspiring to be, but considering this is his first time out of the gate of feature filmmaking, the result is only half-bad.
Man of Tai Chi is now playing in limited theatrical release, and is available through Video On Demand services and digital download. It is 105 minutes and is Rated R for violence.