2013 was an interesting year for Hollywood’s greatest deadpan protagonist actor, Keanu Reeves, as he appeared to be spending more time focusing on projects based on or set in the far east. During this time he starred, believe it or not, in a movie called 47 Ronin, where he plays a Samurai. As for his other film from that year? Lets talk about it.
Set primarily in Beijing and Hong Kong, Man Of Tai Chi is not only 1 of few films (the only 1 I can think of) were Reeves is the main villain, but is also known for being his directorial debut (as terrible or funny as that might look to some on paper). His film’s main protagonist is Tiger Chen, a practitioner of the Martial Art known as Tai Chi (played by Reeves’ best friend and 1 of the fight choreographers for The Matrix, Tiger Chen Linhu…Yes, the actor and film’s hero have the same name). He has a master, lives in a small, rented apartment, has a job as a postman, takes part in Martial Arts tournaments on the side, practices english by listening to English-speaking radio in the car, and during his spare time he likes to visit his parents and chat to his friend Qing Sha (played by Qing Ye) while she’s at work (you probably know where that’s going already). Meanwhile, an illegal fight club is taking place in Hong Kong. The type of fight club that could be best described as martial arts-style Gladiator fights, where there are no rules, to lose is to die, winners are well paid, and the boss earns enough money to afford any car he wants, including the Bugatti Veyron…This fight club is run by an ice cold, mysterious foreigner, named Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who has 1 of the most awesome villain homes I’ve seen in quite a while (actually cool with few gimmicks). He is being pursued by Hong Kong Police Officer Sun-Jing Shi (played by Karen Mok) in an attempt to crack down on his operations, but somehow he manages to get away and clean up before she arrives each time. After killing 1 of his fighters due to him not wanting to kill his opponent (and for ratting him out to the cops), Donaka Mark searches for someone to fill the void…which he finds in Tiger Chen through his cameraman/scout at the tournaments that Tiger goes to on the side. Donaka conducts a very physical job interview with Tiger in Hong Kong, to which Tiger refuses his offer, as it dishonoured Tai Chi. But when his master’s 600 year old temple is threatened with demolition (due to health and safely breaches) he decides to take Donaka’s offer.
This is a strange film for me to review because I know what has been done really well and some of what was poor. But I’m genuinely undecided about some aspects of the film’s execution. But lets ponder…and talk about the good first.
The 4 most obvious greats about the film are the Cinematography, the editing, the action scenes and the location/design/production. The cinematography is done by veteran director of photography Elliot Davis (who also directed the photography in The Iron Lady, I Am Sam, and…Twilight). He did an phenomenal job in presenting this film, along with the its fast, stylish and attractive editing. The action scenes were very well made, but don’t expect anything like Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa. The best 1 was Tiger taking on the MMA fighter in the interview. The worst 1 was Tiger taking on Donaka himself. Why? Because it’s clear that comparing the martial arts skill of Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen is like pitting a character from Tekken 1 with 1 from Tekken 6 (while making it look like they’re in league with each other). Keanu’s moves could be seen as hard-hitting, but simple, and the editing/cinematography does quite a good job at masking at least some of the simplicity. Lastly, the locations, interior choices, production…This film’s style is how I envision a movie version of the video game Sleeping Dogs would look (not be, but look and feel). The film also has some very good, fitting choices in music, so…that’s a 5th great part.
Now onto the bad, or at least what I know to be the bad. The side story where Officer Sun-Jong Shi is trying to gather enough evidence to put Donaka away is very underdeveloped. It was necessary for the plot, but still needed a lot of work. The characters are all primarily underdeveloped as well. The relationship between Tiger and Qing shares about 5 minutes of the screen, but at the same time, it’s acceptable because they’re not dating. Tiger’s character development is more based on his journey rather than who he is. And Donaka is almost always mean and cold with very few redeeming qualities (something that seems rather common in some morality tales where there isn’t really a grey area when it comes to the villain. Donaka is pure Yang). Also, there’s a scene where Donaka does a slightly evil laugh, which did nothing but show us why Keanu Reeves is best suited to being emotionless and asking questions while Al Pacino and Lawrence Fishbourne show off their cool (don’t get me wrong, I like Keanu Reeves, and i think he can be very good in certain roles. But when he’s not good, and this does happen, at least he’s funny…think Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Best english accent ever *wink wink*).
Now onto the difficult part – the “I’m not sure if this is good or bad” section. Along with our underdeveloped characters, we’re also provided with an okay story with some nice ideas thrown in. I’m not sure I’m that fussed with the lack of relationship time between Tiger and his other social links, but at the same time there is a decent morality tale, as well as an interesting take on “Big Brother”. Tiger gradually transforms from nice, upstanding man with Tai Chi background, to being an aggressive fighter (practically a killer) who is doing it for the money. As his new job wears on him, Tiger starts to fight more aggressively, not only in tournaments, but in training sessions with his master. He also symbolically stops wearing white or bright colours and begins to wear black (leather jacket included…It’s quite a Spiderman choice if you ask me, but at least they didn’t make Tiger an Emo). He later finds out that Donaka had an enormous plan for him all along, which is where the big brother aspect comes in…To say the least, I thought this was done pretty well! The acting for the most part is good and generally what I expect from most Hong Kong cinema movies with drama in them. But Keanu Reeves is not a particularly convincing villain…It can be said though, that man has very good genes (He was 48 in this). Lastly, you have the respect-aspect. Here is this american coming in to make a film about a Chinese Martial Art. To some, this might be as offensive as Kevin Costner as Robin Hood or how Memoirs Of A Geisha turned out. But Keanu Reeves managed to pull off a surprisingly convincing and entertaining film. There is a respect there for the craft he’s conveying. And that in itself is admirable.
Would I recommend Man Of Tai Chi?…Yes. It has great fight scenes, is presented well, does have a good morality tale even if it’s not a good overall story, and some very good location choices. The acting from the chinese actors (which includes Simon Yam, who appears in the Ip Man movies) is well done, and I quite liked the dialogue going back and forth between english, mandarin and cantonese (guess who only speaks english in this?). It even features Iko Uwais from The Raid and The Raid 2. One thing I will say about this film – don’t expect it to be good. It’s surprisingly engaging, fun and enjoyable. But it’s not a world class movie by any stretch of the imagination.
Story: ** (*** for the morality tale & themes)
Action Scenes: ****1/4
Overall Rating: ***1/2