Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen meet again after first exchanging blows in The Matrix Reloaded, when Neo had a little tussle inside the Merovingian’s mansion with his goons.
Man of Tai Chi is a martial arts film in the 90’s style of the genre, calling to mind Jet Li’s cinematic outings. Anyone who dismisses this film as workmanlike or average has no idea the difficulty in successfully pulling off a martial arts film. There is a litany of western produced action films that are an incoherent jumbled mess or garnished with unnecessary CGI (with 2009’s Ninja Assassin a modern example).
Thankfully American martial arts movies are still alive and kicking thanks to the likes of Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins, and we can now add Keanu Reeves’ directing début to the list of worthy martial arts films. The tale of a student of Tai Chi selling his soul for silver, thrashing in the dark lost, and finding his way back to the straight path. It’s a simple tale, but no less compelling for it.
Writer Michael G. Cooney subverts the classic Enter the Dragon template, seen hundreds of times in fighting video games from Tekken to Dead or Alive, and transforms it into a profound spiritual journey. It’s not going to win Academy awards, but at the same time it’s operating in the confines of a particular genre and lives up to the standards set by its predecessors. This is remarkable considering it’s a first time directing gig for an American, yet has the spirit of classic Hong Kong cinema, no doubt encouraged by fellow Matrix veteran fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.
This is exactly what Ninja Assassin should have been: long uninterrupted takes; the camera roving around two guys beating the crap out of each other; silky smooth Steadicam, no hyperactive editing or CGI. This is Reeves’ retort to most American produced martial arts. Granted, he has the help of a master in action director Yuen Woo-ping and his experiences on The Matrix trilogy with the Wachowskis. Martial arts films may be looked down upon by some film snobs, but make no mistake there is an art to them, it’s not enough to simply plop a camera on a tripod and then ask two people to throw punches.
Most action films shake the camera during fight scenes because usually they can’t pull off the illusion of two characters fighting, the fake punches look ridiculous caught on camera. So they mask it by shaking the camera, zooming close up and using rapid fire editing. You ultimately end up with a violent looking frenzy if you’re lucky, and an incoherent mess if you’re not. The thrashing shaky-cam style works to the benefit of a film when employed by a good director like Paul Greengrass in the Bourne trilogy, but for the most part it’s headache-inducing.
Man of Tai Chi’s story is worthy of being told. The trailer showed a familiar scenario of a fighting tournament, but hints at a spiritual journey. The film itself fulfils that potential, vying away from a generic save-the-world plot and instead focusing on Tiger’s evolution as a well-meaning student of Tai Chi who caves to material wealth and a latent hunger for violence buried inside him that’s inherent to all humans. It’s not an original story, but it’s told with heart and directed well.
We see his relationship with his martial arts master at a rundown temple, his devotion to his parents, and slight hints of financial trouble skirting on the periphery of his life. Then Keanu, playing the typical barbarian devil foreigner, makes an appearance offering a mysterious job with good pay that can solve Tiger’s predicaments, and he takes it willingly. Even after he’s discovered his job is to beat the crap out of people for nebulous reasons, possibly voyeuristic in nature, he continues, and thus his descent to the dark side begins.
As a result his relationship to everyone in his life suffers, and he comes into the crosshairs of a detective played by Karen Mok, who is pursuing Keanu’s villain against the wishes of her superior played by legend Simon Yam. These two great HK actors don’t have much to do in the story other than be exposition devices, so their scenes are tiresome to watch. Mok’s scenes feel obligatory, and not much happens in them other than moving the plot forward, but thankfully they’re all pretty short scenes. But hey, it’s Karen Mok and Simon Yam in a film directed by Keanu Reeves, so whatever!
The fight scenes utilise the peaceful looking Tai Chi and transform it into an effective way to defend against a variety of different styles. There is minimal wire-work, which only comes into affect for the more creative and borderline mystical power moves. The fighting locations aren’t particularly exotic, though there is a showcasing fight set on a cargo ship that had potential. It’s a glitzy fight with Tiger facing off against two fighters but unfortunately it doesn’t meet its potential. The concept was ripe, but too much strobe lighting got in the way of that. The mood is good though, with a mannequin-type audience observing the brutal fight with eerie detachment.
Iko Uwais (widely known as the lead in 2011′s The Raid) has a brief cameo but unfortunately it’s anticlimactic. The scene he features in is excellent and serves the story and character arc well, but he just doesn’t have much to do, so temper your expectations when he appears. As for Tiger Chen, he’s not the type that is bursting with charisma, but he does have a quiet intensity about him that reminded me of Jet Li at his prime.
It’s easy to tell why this film was not restricted to Hong Kong, and has many scenes set on mainland China. It espouses Confucius values, and coupled with a foreign villain; it’s tailor-made for China’s film authorities. Though despite its pro-China leanings, Reeves knows the premise has an air of cheesy value to it, and does not take things too seriously, playfully having fun with the whole affair. His performance is enthusiastically evil, just utterly seething with villainous attitude, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s so great to see Keanu doing martial arts again, it’s like Neo is back from the Matrix.
Man of Tai Chi is a worthy addition to the genre, an impressive début from a first-time director whose passion for martial arts comes through with clarity. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it displays a love for the art.