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September 2, 2013

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Movie Review – Man of Tai Chi (2013)

by Master Pillow

Unless a miracle happens Keanu Reeves will probably never win an Academy Award for Best Actor but if Man of Tai Chi proves anything it is that Reeves might have a different career path behind the camera once his wooden acting days are over.  Reeves has never been considered as an acting giant but give the man some credit as his laid back attitude works depending on the material he is given.  Man of Tai Chi has Reeves doing double duty playing the film’s major antagonist as well as being its director.  Yes, this is his directorial debut and while it isn’t anything special there are a few hints that perhaps Reeves really has been paying attention to all the good directors he has had the pleasure of working with.

Longtime Yuen Woo-Ping stuntman Tiger Chen plays, um, Tiger Chen, a Tai Chi apprentice who struggles to make ends meet in his daily job as a lowly courier.  Tiger is a man who is at a crossroads in his life trying to understand the deeper teachings of Tai Chi and his inner frustration at essentially feeling unappreciated.  Enter Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a man in charge of his own legitimate security firm, who also runs an underground fight club in Hong Kong where combatants can make a ton of cash with the downside being that each encounter is to the death.

Donaka is in need of a new star as his former one has proved to be inadequate and he soon turns his eye to Tiger Chen whom he figures would make a great addition to his club not only based on his skill but his innocent and naive mental state.  After an invite to audition before Donaka, Tiger finds his life slowly falling apart as his Tai Chi master’s temple is flagged for safety violations prompting it to be closed within a month.  Desperate to save the temple, Chen agrees to fight for Donaka starting him down a dark path where fame, fortune and glory slowly overwhelm his life.

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Man of Tai Chi is an odd combination of Western film techniques married with an inherently Eastern narrative and though it occasionally wobbles the overall product actually has a polished sheen that makes it apparent that Reeves understands how to block a scene.  This is especially true of the martial arts sequences of which there are many to behold.  Let’s be honest, this is the type of movie where most fans will watch only for the fights and in this sense the film delivers in droves as it is filled with almost unending brawling.

What makes Man of Tai Chi stand out, at least in terms of Keanu Reeves’ directing, is that he doesn’t fall into the trap of utilizing modern editing exemplified by Michael Bay in overdoing the cuts making it hard to discern just what the heck is going on.  Watching any of the Transformers films is an exercise in frustration as Bay keeps cutting back and forth with wild abandon leaving viewers grasping at straws trying to figure out how the fight in unfolding.  Not so here in Man of Tai Chi as Reeves is content to let each fight play out with much longer takes and he even allows his camera to often pull back to a long shot showing the full-body length of the fighters on screen.  Sure, there are many close or medium shots involved but by and large they aren’t employed as a technical device to hide the relative inexperience of the actors since everyone really does, “know Kung-Fu. “

Okay, I’m throwing a Matrix pun out there but the fact remains that everyone save Mr. Reeves himself is a real martial artist or stunt man and it results in some compelling and increasingly brutal fight scenes that pack a wallop.  Another feather in director Reeves’ cap is that he doesn’t rely on much wire-aided work save for a few obvious shots where actors clearly perform beyond any normal human being which adds an air of authenticity to the action.

This allows the action sequences to really shine especially since each instance features combatants from different fighting schools from MMA to boxing to a plethora of martial arts disciplines.  Also working in the film’s favour is the fact that the hero, Tiger Chen, is using Tai Chi, a form of martial arts no one usually equates to being used as a successful offensive style.  Chen’s Tai Chi undergoes radical change as the movie progresses moving from a more defensive almost balletic set of moves to outright brutality near the end as his character falls into emotional turmoil.

Unfortunately, the only action moment that disappoints comes right at the end in the climactic battle between Tiger and Neo, I mean, Donaka.  Yes, that means once again we get to see Keanu Reeves pretend that, “he knows Kung Fu,” and the result will remind everyone of The Matrix where Reeves does his best memorizing the choreography but really just looks cloddish.  Part of the problem here is that Reeves finally has no choice as a director but to resort to film techniques such as under-cranking and over-cranking to either fake a faster speed or go slow motion as well as utilizing more quick cuts or narrow angles to hide the fact that he is a novice fighter.

Additionally, while the film attempts to showcase realistic fights the whole concept is undone with one mystical element which revolves around the use of spiritual energy named “qi” that flows through every human being much like George Lucas’ “Force” from Star Wars.  The problem is that Reeves allows one of these super-powered moves into the film where it clearly is not needed or desired.  Even though this is nothing out of the ordinary for most fans of martial arts movies it forces the film to feel more like a video game, specifically something like Street Fighter where Ken and Ryu throw Hadoken fireballs at enemies with impunity.  This is clearly one genre trope that should have been dumped since it feels completely out of place amongst the realistic scuffles.

Then again it is hard to say just how much kudos Reeves should receive in these action sequences considering he’s got legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping as his second in command.  This is the man responsible for the amazing martial arts sequences in films such as The Matrix trilogy, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Iron Monkey, Kung Fu Hustle, Once Upon A time in China and Drunken Master to name a few.  He’s also a veteran director having helmed 28 feature films the next one being Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2.  It was obvious that Reeves would pick him as his action director considering the two worked extensively on The Matrix trilogy and the two seem to hit it off well here in Man of Tai Chi as the fights really are the highlight of the film.

However, the less said about the actual narrative the better.  There really isn’t anything overtly cringe-worthy in the overall plot but diehard fans of the martial arts genre or Hong Kong movies in general will feel a strong sense of déjà vu as everything presented here is rehashed from previous films.  Even the emotional thrust of the film based on the teaching of Tai Chi and finding inner peace have been featured in countless other movies making Man of Tai Chi feel inherently stale and out of date.  Western viewers might be more forgiving about the spiritual subplot but even then the script fails to create a proper arc for Tiger as one can argue that the ending is not at all cathartic in a way one would expect especially in a film about finding balance.

Reeves does deserve some credit for actually attempting to layer the film by introducing a kind of Truman Show subplot where Tiger’s every move from brushing his teeth to eating dinner with his parents is secretly taped and streamed to paying fans on the Internet but alas these themes are never fully explored and soon kicked to the curb robbing the film of cogent subtext.  This is a real missed opportunity as Reeves certainly spent enough time setting up the intricacies of the plot only to see all his work flushed down the toilet especially in the truncated third act.

In fact the third act is a real game changer for all the wrong reasons as instead of skillfully bringing together all his chess pieces Reeves instead mashes them all in a blender and hits frappé, content to wrap up the plot threads with as much skill as a drunken hyena.  Moments which should have had strong emotional payoffs never emerge and the entire final ten minutes feels inherently anti-climactic.  If you are going to cast Iko Uwais, the breakout star from the Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption, as one of Tiger’s final opponents the audience is really going to expect a kick-ass action sequence but instead the entire setup fizzles out.

In an odd way it is hard to totally grade Keanu Reeves as a director since he is saddled with three major impediments the first being the by-the-numbers script while the second and third are his two primary actors, Tiger Chen and unsurprisingly, himself.  Tiger Chen is a stuntman by trade and this is his first lead acting role and it shows as he projects almost zero screen presence.  It is obvious that he is trying his best but like nearly every Hong Kong martial arts star from Jet Li to Donnie Yen the fact remains that it took those veterans many films to begin to feel comfortable within their own skin to let their charisma truly shine.  Tiger is obviously at his best during the fight sequences but he’s as bland as milquetoast in every other scene as if he’s attempting to blend in with the background.  This is a film which needs him to show a slow progression from a centered “Man of Tai Chi” to a brutal street fighter and those needed scenes of him fighting for emotional control never materialize.

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At the other end of the spectrum is Keanu Reeves who should have known better than to stretch himself silly in his directorial debut by concentrating behind the camera instead of casting himself as the villain.  Although it is mildly interesting to see him take on the villainous role the result is exactly as one would expect as he allows himself to growl and chew scenery in all the wrong ways leading to one hilariously overwrought moment when he snarls at the top of his lungs that will have every viewer picturing Darth Vader’s dreadfully contrite “NOOOOOOOO!” from Star Wars Revenge of the Sith.  It didn’t’ work in Star Wars and it sure doesn’t work here in Man of Tai Chi as the only reaction one will expect is abject laughter.  Note to Keanu: Adding comedy to the film is good but not if it comes at the expense of the movie.

Still, it is interesting to watch Man of Tai Chi and compare it to Man With the Iron Fist directed by and starring RZA.  Both RZA and Keanu Reeves are huge fans of the martial arts genre and it would make a great film school topic to see how both directors approached helming their own vehicles.  RZA allowed himself to go overboard with the cheese and wire-aided work resulting in a film that completely spun out of control but Reeves actually fares much better basically taking a more serious path that attempts to showcase the action in as realistic a manner as possible only occasionally embellishing it with wires or film trickery.

Man of Tai Chi will never be mentioned in the same breath as other genre greats but for a first-time director Keanu Reeves does well enough despite the obviously lacking script as well as its bland acting performances.  The film even manages to sideline Hong Kong stars Simon Yam and Karen Mok into totally forgettable supporting roles that are not only undercooked but also feature more than a few suspect plot twists.  It’s exactly the type of film that one would watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon if it were on the television screen but just don’t expect to remember it days later.  As for Keanu Reeves this is a decent first effort although my advice to him: please don’t play the villain ever again.

** out of ****

2013, Hong Kong/China/USA, 105 Minutes, China Film Group/Company Films/Dalian Wanda Group/Village Roadshow
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Screenplay by Michael G. Cooney
Produced by Lemore Syvan & Daxing Zhang
Cinematography by Elliot Davis
Film Editing by Derek Hui
Casting by PoPing AuYeung
Production Design by Yohei Taneda

Tiger Hu Chen: Tiger Hu
Keanu Reeves: Donaka Mark
Karen Mok: Sun Jingshi
Simon Yam: Wong
Michael Chan: Police Office #1
Qing Ye: Qingsha
Yu Hai: Yang
Sam Lee: Tak Ming
Iko Uwais: Gilang Sanjaya

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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