‘MAN OF TAI CHI’: Keanu Reeves directs a so-so story with great action
By BRUCE INGRAM For Sun-Times Media October 31, 2013 6:30PM
Tiger Chen in "Man of Tai Chi"
‘MAN OF TAI CHI’ ★★1⁄2
Chen Lin-Hu Tiger Chen
Donaka Mark Keanu Reeves
Suen Jing-Si Karen Mok
Master Yang Yu Hai
Radius-TWC presents a film directed by Keanu Reeves and written by Michael G. Cooney. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for violence). Available now on demand and opens Friday at AMC River East 21, Barrington 30 and Yorktown 18.
Updated: December 2, 2013 11:17AM
‘Man of Tai Chi” doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping like last year’s Indonesian rave-up “The Raid,” and it’s not nearly as much fun as China’s video game/steampunk-influenced “Tai Chi Zero” and “Tai Chi Hero.”
It has modest virtues, though, for fans of old-school martial-arts thrillers, as a thematic throwback that might have been made in the 1970s. And one major asset is the always spectacular stunt direction of Yuen Woo-Ping, the golden-age kung-fu movie director turned A-list fight choreographer (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Kill Bill”).
“Man of Tai Chi” (which was shot and chiefly financed in China) is also of interest as the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves. It’s a personal project the actor had been working on since winding up the “Matrix” trilogy, but he has approached it in a surprisingly impersonal manner — cool, competent and emotionally detached. A bit too emotionally detached for proper vicarious enjoyment. And serious almost to the point of silliness.
Reeves plays the all-evil big boss Donaka Mark, an American security specialist operating an underground fighting ring in Hong Kong. Mark is always looking for new fighters, mainly because the old ones keep killing each other off in “Mortal Kombat”-style battles to the death. He’s especially pleased if he can find a good, pure-hearted sort so he can destroy him body and soul. That’s just the kind of Mephistophelian guy he is.
Mark spots the hero of “Man of Tai Chi” competing in a televised tournament and immediately appreciates his potential. (“Innocent!” he shouts accusingly while stabbing his finger at the TV.) Chen Lin-Hu, played by “Matrix” kung-fu trainer Tiger Chen (a longtime Reeves buddy who co-developed the film), is an unusually aggressive practitioner of Tai Chi, who wants to prove his brand of kung fu is “more than just exercise.” That’s a source of concern for his old master (Yu Hai), who sternly advises a strict course of meditation, but of course Chen’s latent killer instinct suits Mark fine. And when Mark gets in touch, he talks money, not meditation.
Chen resists, at first, but when he learns that his master’s temple will be destroyed unless expensive repairs can be made (no kidding), he’s hooked. And as he progresses from fight to fight, he becomes increasingly violent and corrupt, leading ultimately to a clash with his master, a crisis of conscience and the formula-mandated showdown with the bad guy.
There are other things going on here: a romance with an office girl who is attracted to Chen the humble deliveryman, not Chen the ruthless blood sport champ, and some peripheral intrigue involving a Hong Kong police investigation. But the main item of business, in time-honored kung-fu movie tradition, is the hero’s journey to spiritual discovery and self-mastery — leading, of course, to even greater butt-kicking ability. That process isn’t worth much more than a stifled yawn at this stage, in terms of drama, in spite of Reeves’ skillful earnestness as director.
Fortunately, the same is not true of the numerous fight scenes in “Man of Tai Chi,” all of them staged with breathtaking intensity by Woo-Ping, using Chen’s whirling-dervish approach to Tai Chi as a gimmick — his “soft style used in a hard way” pitted against a variety of opposing techniques.
The story is so-so, in other words, but the pummeling is primo. Check it out On Demand if you’re so inclined, and keep the fast-forward button handy.