Keanu Reeves directs his first feature film with Man of Tai Chi. I know what most of you are thinking: Whoa. It's just a matter of that being a good or bad whoa. If you've seen the documentary he produced, Side by Side, you know there is more to Reeves, and Man of Tai Chi proves it in a glorious, over-the-top way.
The film follows Tiger (Tiger Chen) as he attempts to take the style Tai Chi into the martial arts world and beyond. He gets dragged into an underground fight club, desperate to prove himself and survive. Reeves isn't just behind the camera, he's also costarring as Donaka Mark, CEO of a security company, and ringleader of the underground fights.
"Let. The show. Begin." Yes, that's one of Reeves' lines in the film, but it also translates perfectly for this foreign film. It is quite a show, and what is fantastic is this completely feels like a Chinese film instead of an American director attempting to make one. It is over indulgent with a simple story. Neither of those things are an insult. The fact that Reeves puts himself in the role of the villain gives him a freedom to give us all of the Keanu-ness we can handle. He even channels Yoda at one point saying, "A fight you will get." Tai Chi and Tiger's journey with it feels very much like a battle of the Force, with Tiger being swayed to the Dark Side.
Tai Chi is all about the harmony of form and spirit. Tiger's master (Yu Hai) doesn't want Tai Chi used for combat, but we do, and there is plenty of it to soak up. As Tiger evolves as a fighter, the evil starts to overtake him. Most of the time it's depressing and a little boring when a character spirals down; with Man of Tai Chi it just means we get better/crazier fights. The "Tie Fight," the "Two on One" and "Barge Fight" all have their moments, though "Man Who Absorbs Groin Punch" might have been my favorite second of action. Heck there's even good pump-up music when Tiger goes for an interview. Chen looks great on-screen, even the flop of Tiger's hair helps the action, plus his small stature just makes the battles more impressive. Reeves gives the film movement during the drama of cops trying to track them down, and stands back and lets us see the action instead of handing us SCS (Shaky Camera Syndrome), as so many other action movies do.
It is the best martial arts/physical-combat movie I have seen since The Raid: Redemption. So, when the star of that film Iko Uwais shows up, there is a euphoric moment. Unfortunately, his fight is one of the few times that doesn't deliver. My mind wandered, hoping they could fix that with a sequel. Though, the more I think of it, Reeves' first directing gig proves he knows exactly what kind of film he wants to make, and I hope we have many more original (nonsequel) stories to tell in the future.
Sometimes a film can be as simple as black and white (and the men who wear those colors). Man of Tai Chi delivers where it matters the most, with fantastic choreographed action. It's like a Matrix spin-off, with Evil Neo obsessed with creating the best fighter in the almost-real world. Whoa, indeed.
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