Review: Man of Tai Chi / Cert: 18 / Director: Keanu Reeves / Screenplay: Michael G. Cooney / Starring: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok / Release Date: TBC
Keanu Reeves successfully moves from one side of the camera to the other with a surprising choice for his directorial debut: an old school Hong Kong martial arts film. Reeves plays the antagonist, Mark Donaka, wealthy Hong Kong security company owner and operator of a shady underground fighting ring, who sets his sights on enticing innocent Tiger Chen, (played by the martial artist also known as Tiger Hu Chen, Reeves' martial arts teacher on the Matrix films), the titular Man of Tai Chi, into the ring.
Tiger Chen, a harried courier in Beijing, is the only heir to his particular brand of tai chi passed down through 600 generations, and he aspires to show that it can be much more of a combat-focused martial art than traditionally thought by taking part in legitimate competitions with other martial artists. However, Donaka's fights soon set him down a dark path of needless aggression and unbalanced chi.
Parallel to this story, Sun Jingshi (Mok), a Hong Kong police officer, tracks Donaka and eventually Tiger Chen, hoping to bring down the fighting ring, as she knows that (as shown in the first sequence of the film) no one ever leaves this ring alive. Can Tiger Chen redeem himself before he loses too much of himself and what else has Donaka got in mind for him?
For a first-timer, Reeves directs all aspects of the film very well, taking the necessary time to set up the characters and stories before jumping into the fights, and the decision to keep almost half the dialogue in Chinese (25% Mandarin and 25% Cantonese if reports are correct) keeps the film firmly grounded in reality, apart from a minor fantastical element near the climax that warrants its inclusion in Starburst.
It is a martial arts competition film however, and much of the remaining running time is taken up with Tiger’s bouts against opponents from all types of martial arts – the increasing difficulty, and number, of his opponents reflecting his own problems staying true to his sifu’s teachings and his love of tai chi.
Reeves had to abandon plans to use a special rig to move the camera seamlessly around and above the actors while fighting. We can only imagine what visual delights this would have provided, but even so the fighting on display is solid and visceral, the camera staying close in to the combat but still allowing the fight progression and impressive moves to be fully appreciated. These scenes escalate in their brutality as the film progresses, starting with elegant use of tai chi to avoid and redirect blows and graduating to vicious no-holds-barred battles later in the film.
A few scenes using wirework break the tone of the fights due to the unrealistic lack of weight of some characters, but it appears that Reeves himself didn’t appreciate this approach as the technique is quickly dismissed and doesn’t seem to be used again. Acting-wise Chen is likeable as the lead and Reeves provides a first-rate antagonist, even getting his hands dirty later in the film. Man of Tai Chi should appeal to all fans of Hong Kong (and international) action cinema and shows a promising start to what will hopefully be a long and interesting directing career for Reeves.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10