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I can’t believe it’s taken Keanu Reeves this long to direct a film. Clooney has directed five mediocre movies at this point (including the dreadful looking Monuments Men, which opens this week), but we’ve only gotten one from the great Keanu, Lord of Woah and Dude (and also Dude, woah). I really like Reeves as a performer. He is the kind of solid actor who rarely lets you down. Even his bad movies are made entertaining by his sheer presences alone. In his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, Reeves shows some skill behind the camera as well as in front of it (in a supporting turn), but subpar special effects, a lackluster main story, and some pacing issues hold it back from being a better movie than it might have been.
Man of Tai Chi is the story of Tiger Chen (newcomer Chen Hu), a Tai Chi-style martial arts who begins fighting in sanctioned tournaments in order to foster interest in his kung fu style, which is largely thought to be more for recreation or exercise than it is for tournament fighting. Utilizing his considerable talent, Tiger wins a match and draws the attention of Donaka Mark (Reeves), a villainous businessman with intentions of using Chen’s kung fu spectacle to make money in a series of illicitly filmed illegal underground street fights. Chen takes the job (believing it to be in private security) in order to pay for the renovation of his master’s Tai Chi temple, which needs considerable safety upgrades.
Reeves shows some deft skill behind the camera. The fights in Man of Tai Chi, which should be the draw for any kung fu film, are well-shot and well-choreographed, with nary an annoying jump cut or close-up to stifle the action. Chen’s various battles against other street fighters are violent affairs, with many taking a considerable amount of time to conclude. In one fight, Chen is nearly strangled to death with his tie, appearing to lose much of the fight before coming back and literally fighting for his life against his well-matched opponent. Even Chen’s sanctioned fights in the tournament are well done despite being secondary to the main plot.
The film’s main weaknesses are in its story as well as its special effects. Shot on a budget of 25 million (low for a Hollywood film but considerably high for a Hong Kong martial arts film), Man of Tai Chi looks amazing in some places (the set design stands out, particularly during the two-on-one fight) but horrifically cheap in others. In one scene, Detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Mok), who is investigating the illegal underground fights, is run off the road in her car. The CGI car looks like it could have come from a second-rate police procedural on basic cable. The film’s story is also incredibly cliché, including the aforementioned subplot about needing to save the temple. The pacing is also interminably slow in places, especially when a film like this needs to maintain a breakneck pace to keep interesting (like 2011’s The Raid for example).
The performances are mostly fine. I don’t expect amazing caliber of acting in a martial arts film, and Chen Hu is decent as the lead. The script doesn’t call for him to do much other than show emotion when he is happy or sad and fight well, and he does indeed fight quite well. Reeves is fine as the villain. I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing him play a villainous role more often, but it is apparent Keanu is kind of content to just do his thing and appear randomly in movies of various quality every couple of years, and I can’t blame him for that. Supporting characters, mostly made up of recognizable Chinese actors and actresses, are also rather passable, even if some of the subplots are eye-rollingly cliché.
I would say I had an ok time watching Man of Tai Chi. It’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly delivers on the martial arts action. The story is incredibly cliché and the entire production seemed to skimp a bit on the special effects, but it is a perfectly passable film. Reeves has shown a great amount of respect for martial arts films in the past (his training for The Matrix for example), and he also shows a bit of talent behind the camera in his directorial debut. I wouldn’t mind seeing more Keanu Reeves-directed films in the future. His first film isn’t great, but it’s not without its merits either.