Title: Man of Tai Chi
Director: Keanu Reeves
Starring: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Hai Yu, Qing Ye, Simon Yam, Iko Uwais
Plot: Tiger Chen (Chen) a Tai Chi student who despite his master’s concerns uses his training to compete in martial arts tournaments. However when the temple where he trains is threatened with demolition, he finds himself fighting for money in an underground fight club run by the mysterious Donaka (Reeves).
Review: I don’t think when Keanu Reeves announced that he was making his first foray into directing that it would be a foreign language martial arts movie but here he does just that with a decidedly less is more approach, while to an extent creating a showcase the talents of his friend and martial arts trainer Tiger Hu Chen.
Reportedly based events in Chen’s life even if the facts surrounding such claims are limited to say the least, here Reeves keeps things decidedly simple with a more is less attitude as he builds around spectacular fight scenes provided courtesy of the legendry action director Yeun Woo-Ping while keeping a strong focus on the action rather than trying to pad things out with unneeded drama.
Similar in many ways to the original idea for “Ring of Steel” in that it is a story of the corrupting power of money, fame and success; as while setting out with an honest and pure goal of saving his temple, the success Tiger achieves fighting in these underground contest and the rewards that they bring soon causes him to lose track of the reason he is fighting to begin with, while at the same time having the interesting effect of making his fighting style increasingly more violent and brutal the further into this world he is drawn.
While the film follows the usual fighting tournament format with Tiger facing a seemingly endless line of opponents, each with their own unique fighting style including “The Raid” leading man Iko Uwais as it leads to the inevitable showdown with Donaka. What makes it so different is the setup for each fight, which is not the usual ring surrounded by rich invited guests cheering and sipping Champaign but often just a plain room while Donaka watches on from behind mirror glass panels or via the large TV screen in his office and essentially gives the idea that the sole reason that Donaka is doing any of this is solely so that he can have the his own live action version of “Mortal Kombat”. An idea only further reinforced by the announcement to “Fight” and even the command to “Finish Him” popping up and usually followed by a black mask wearing Donaka doing the honours when his fighters inevitably bottle it when given such a command, seemingly only happy to beat their opponent to a bloody pulp but not finish the job.
Donaka though is a fascinating if at time slightly cardboard villain and one suits Reeve’s eternally laid back style, while it is an interesting change of pace to see Reeve playing a villain again, with “The Watcher” being the only other occasion that he has played anything other than a variation on his usual good guy role. Still here his chilled out style only adds to his character who maintains a zen like cool through to the end were he seems to be taking notes from the Nicolas Cage school of acting including the bear trap grin which bizarrely make an appearance while he’s having the holy hell beaten out of him by Tiger. Its unclear though if Reeve’s took on this role to further the budget or because he genuinely felt like playing the bad guy for a change of pace. Despite being nowhere near the level of Tiger Chan, their relationship off screen as Reeve’s martial arts trainer ensure that the end fight scene still works well with
While the film might have worked well as just a straightforward tournament movie, the film also follows the feisty Hong Kong Police officer Sun-Jin Shi (Mok) who is currently trying to investigate Donaka only to find her undercover fighters keep getting discovered and disposed off before we can arrest him while her refusal to give up on the case makes only further makes her the ire of Superintendent Wong (Yam). Mok’s character here makes for an interesting sub-plot and helps to fill in the background for Donaka even if her link to Tiger just remain frustratingly underused and only really comes together out of convenience to the plot rather than the major plot line it should have been when Tiger agrees to become a mole for Shi’s investigation after the true reality of his situation becomes apparent.
Unquestionably though the real selling point are the frequently inventive fight scenes which are every bit the intended showcase of Tiger Chen’s obvious talent, while the range of styles on offer only help to keep things interesting especially when Chen starts letting his darker side take over more and more. At the same time Reeves manages to pull out several surprising fight locations including one ring which not only comes with a groovy blacklight theme but also has a surprise strobe light effect which kicks in when the fight starts to tip in Chen’s favour, though honestly this experiment kind of failed as while it looks pretty, the movement of the actors only comes off erratic when put under the strobe. Despite this slight misstep Reeve shows a clear love of the genre especially with the involvement of Yeun Woo-Ping’s much sort after skills as an action director only further helping this film stand out from the numerous questionable entries that the DTV market has seen a recent influx of with the film unquestionably being a vast improvement over the likes of “Tekken” and the frustratingly hit and miss “Ninja”.
While this might not be high art film making it’s still an incredibly enjoyable film and one which raises plenty of questions as to where Reeve’s will go for his next film especially when a large part of me would more than happily see him give us more of the same, much like Tiger Chan who while he might not currently at the time of writing have anything on his release slate is certainly a talent worth following.