“Man of Tai Chi”
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Starring Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Silvio Simac, Qing Ye
Without exception, every time that Keanu Reeves‘s opens his mouth in Man of Tai Chi, I chuckled. And I wasn’t alone. Every member of the audience was stifling giggles as Reeves stumbled his way through brief chunks of unwieldy dialogue. We burst into laughter when Reeves breaks the third-wall with a roar – teeth-bared and thrashing at the camera like a lion ripping at hunks of sirloin. It’s as if the fog has lifted and Reeves recognizes just how awful an actor he truly is. Seeing Man of Tai Chi is like watching Reeve’s B-list baptism, as the man onscreen embraces his goofy robotic persona to the fullest extent, milking all he can with self-deprecating automockery.
For how applaudably terrible Reeves the actor is, his directorial debut is a bit of a mixed bag that actually tilts more towards success end of the dial, making it hardly the piping failure I fully expected. As a cross-cultural production split between the U.S. and China, the film employs Chinese actors, speaking mostly Chinese, with Reeves as the only whitewashed American with any spoken lines. The decisions Reeves makes – first to film in China with exclusively Chinese actors and to put himself into his own film – are head scratchers, but somehow they kind of end up working – operative word being: “kind of”.
The Chinese actors are mostly fine when they’re speaking Chinese – fine being the only description that really sums up the inoffensive but uninspiring nature of their work – but when they transition into the occasional English phrase, their lack of formal acting training shines through, blinding as a Tuscon afternoon. It’s as if Reeves recited the line to his cast right before the take and they quickly spit it out with the grasp of an ESL crash course student. It’s not intentional racism but some performers do sound like the xenophobia re-dubs on Kung Fu films of the 1970s.
But as a martial arts film, Man of Tai Chi shines. Even though some camera framing issues render certain shots inconsequential, the acrobatic mastery of star Tiger Hu Chen and his many opponents are feats to be marveled. As Chen swings his limbs like thunderous hams, we forget the wires that help float these artists of combat through the air in the most unnatural of ways. At any rate, our focus is zeroed in on the nth degree of precision with which each blow and each block is delivered.
Chen plays Chen (and no, that’s not a typo), a delivery boy who moonlights as a prize fighter. He’s deeply attached to his family and his master, a man who has taught him the ways of Tai Chi since he was a young boy. Traditionally considered a non-violent martial art, Chen surprises all when he uses an aggravated style of “hard” Tai Chi to usurp the reigning martial arts champion, winning him the attention of a shady security empire’s ring leader, Donaka Mark (Reeves).
Mark pulls some strings to all but guarantee that Chen will agree to be his personal prize fighter and the race is on. As Chen gets more and more involved in a circuit of privately broadcast beat downs, he begins to turn towards the dark side, transforming from the innocent boy he was into a barbarous warrior. We later learn: this transformation is the point.
In many ways, Chen’s journey mimics the descent of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. There’s even some unspoken mysticism to “unleashing your chi” that comes across a lot like “the force”. But as Skywalker became Vader through an eroded sense of hubris, Chen’s descent is forged for him. Like a Chinese Truman Show, those watching invite the moral corrosion, paying top dollar to see a good man turned.
Made on a tight budget of $25 million, Man of Tai Chi spends money in the right place: choreography. Even though the sparse CGI couldn’t convince your grandma that some of the larger set effects are real, carefully rehearsed hand-to-hand combat is executed with meticulous precision. It may look like a film on a budget at times but when the flurry of fists starts rumbling, it no longer matters.
As a director, Keanu has made a valiant effort but his minimalist approach and hoodwinked character direction still keep him pegged as a mostly unknown talent. Meanwhile, the script from Resident Evil 6‘s Michael G. Cooney is as amateur as they come and makes you wonder how many tapes of old martial arts movies he watched for research.
For American audiences unfamiliar with the chest of international martial arts film, outside of the late success of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Man of Tai Chi hopes to be a revival for the genre in the U.S. and an ushering in of a new talent in the hawk-faced Chen. The introduction to Chen alone legitimizes the film, even through its abundance of puerility. Even for someone not typically interested in martial arts, Man of Tai Chi does a great job at convincing us that we don’t need fast cars, massive shoot outs, and large breasted vixens to make an exciting action movie – just two dudes willing to beat the living snot out of each other.