Man of Tai Chi
2013, R, 105 min. Directed by Keanu Reeves. Starring Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen, Karen Moki.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 1, 2013
It’s become far too easy to dismiss Keanu Reeves as, well, Keanu Reeves, and that is filmgoers’ loss. Ill-starred by the backlash of 1989’s goofball comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Reeves has ever since sought to throw off the mantle of Dude Bro, Jeff Spicolli’s cinematic next of kin. And in great part, he has succeeded: Perfectly cast in The Matrix trilogy, Reeves revealed himself to be a multidimensional actor with surprising – if occasionally chilly – resources.
Man of Tai Chi is Reeves’ directorial debut, and it sizzles with mandible-cracking action, political intrigue, and the electrifying martial physicality of Tiger Chen (Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix films). With battle-mad set-pieces directed by Fantastic Fest Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Yuen Woo-Ping, and supported with Mandarin, Cantonese, and English dialogue (not to mention Michael G. Cooney’s tight, transnational script), Man of Tai Chi works on its own playing field.
Clad in black, Reeves plays the villainous, cash-heavy Yank Donaka Mark, who ensnares Chen’s pure-of-heart Tai Chi fighter in a slimy underground fight club. True to the tropes of the chopsocky morality plays produced by the Shaw Brothers Studios, there’s a vengeance/redemption heartbeat at the crimson core of the film.
Man of Tai Chi isn’t the perfect debut – the martial combat sequences are as pulse-scrambling as you’d hope, but the script possibly incorporates one too many plot contrivances that recall other, better, wing-and-a-prayer Hong Kong classics. It’s too much to call it “formulaic,” but the age-old formulas are indeed much in evidence. Is that a bad thing, though? Does it evince a dearth of originality on the filmmaker’s part or a prideful fealty to what has come before? I cannot say yea or nay with any serious conviction. Suffice to realize that Reeves’ opening salvo is an ambitious and heady mix of the glorious (if overtold) past, the tense present, and the imperfectly perfect realm of Chen’s fighter, his conscience, and blow upon blow upon blow. The concoction works, despite – or maybe because of – its unjaded, fantastical familiarity