I’ve always been a fan of Martial Arts films. Especially the ones made in the 70’s/80’s directly from Hong Kong. Whether they were period pieces or modern-day, I loved watching some kick ass action sequences. I feel that a well choreographed fight sequence is like watching a really well choreographed dance number from a musical. I’ve also been a fan of Keanu Reeves. Okay, I know people tend to give him a hard time for his wooden delivery, but that’s just how the dude really talks. I don’t think he can help it. I actually think he’s not that bad. In fact, he’s capable of giving some really good performances like in SPEED and especially in Sam Raimi’s THE GIFT. When I first heard that Reeves was making his directorial debut with a martial arts flick, and he was going to play the villain…. well, it definitely peaked my interest.
The plot is about as simple as it gets. The movie stars Tiger Chen as a Tai Chi student named…. well…… Tiger. He trains with his master, who doesn’t believe in fighting. But in order to save the temple (which is about to be torn down), he fights in tournaments. These fights catch the attention of Donaka (Reeves), who run an illegal underground fight ring. He lures Tiger in, promising him vast amounts of cash just for fighting. At first, this arrangement works good for Tiger, but eventually, he begins to actually like hurting people. He likes the power. Tiger must not struggle with his darker, inner demons. Will he retain his good Tai Chi spirit, or will the temptation of power take him over? And if he tries to leave, will Donaka let him? Oh yeah, and there’s some subplot involving a female cop trying to shut down Donaka’s organization.
It’d be really stupid of me (or anyone) to point out the shortcoming of this film’s plot or characterizations. All of those things are there just to get us to the fight sequences. You don’t go to a movie like this for great dialogue, and interesting characters. You go to watch people kick the crap out of each other. But, the fight sequences also have to be good too. And that’s where this film succeeds. There are at least 6 terrific action set pieces. Keanu knows exactly what kind of movie this is, and doesn’t pretend for a second that it’s more important than it really is. It’s a solid kick-ass martial arts movie, nothing more. I miss movies like this.
The movie opens with a brutal fight that ends with Donaka ordering one of the fighters to finish the other one off. After he refuses, Donaka kills the man himself, and then in the locker room, stabs the other one to death. Right away, Reeves establishes that he’s not fucking around. Then we meet Tiger. This character is not too deep, but is very likable. With his kind face and small (but athletic) frame make, it’s easy to root for him. I also liked that this movie shows Tai Chi used in combat. That’s not something that you see very often. There’s something mystical about it that I liked. The scenes with his master reminded me of some of the best training sequences in some of the old Shaw Bros. films from the 70’s. And then when Tiger begins to struggle with himself…. well, I thought that was really interesting.
Now, what about the fights? In short, they kick all sorts of ass! Reeves has been in enough action films to know how to shoot them. He, along with fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, have crafted some pretty impressive fight sequences. One of my favorites being Tiger’s first fight. I love how it starts with him in an empty room, thinking he’s there for a job interview. Then a woman’s voice says: “FIGHT!”, and then a big dude jumps up from behind him and the two ferociously go at it. It’s fast and brutal. I also really liked the fight between Tiger and these 2 crazy dudes in a nightclub-like setting. This is where Tiger really gets into his darkside and it’s something to behold. Even Keanu fights at the very end with Tiger, and proves to be more than a match for him.
The acting, well, it’s a martial arts movie. Actually, Tiger does a great job here. His likability makes up for any shortcomings he may have as an actor. Reeves seems to be having fun as the villain. His delivery is deliciously flat, with a hint of menace. Those who love to poke fun at the way Keanu talks are going to have a blast with him here. He has a few wonderfully campy lines. My favorite performance is probably Yu Hai as Tiger’s master. I love these kinds of old wise characters. The rest of the cast serves the story well.
Reeves is surprisingly confident as a filmmaker here. He doesn’t do anything too showy. He keeps things simple. I’m just happy that he shoots all of the actions scenes in a way that you can tell what’s happening. Too often these days, action scenes are filmed in close-ups with multiple cuts. That’s not the case here. Reeves uses mastershots and minimal edits, so we can see the brilliant fight choreography. I also thought it was cool that Reeves shot at least half of the film in Cantonese, since the film does take place in Hong Kong. The script is what it is. It’s a cheesy action movie, what do you expect?
No one is going to excuse MAN OF TAI CHI of being a masterpiece, nor is it trying to be. It’s trying to be a kick ass movie… an it is! Keanu Reeves has a made a terrific throwback to action cinema of the late 80’s/early 90’s. It’s got solid direction and some impressive fight scenes. What more do you want from a movie like this? Action fans will definitely want to see this on the big screen! ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence.
– Running time: 1hr 45min.