Review: Man of Tai Chi (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: A young Tai Chi master (Tiger Chen) is recruited by an enigmatic multimillionaire (Keanu Reeves) to fight in a series of brutal underground fights, where he pits his traditionally peaceful methods against a series of brutal opponents.
REVIEW: MAN OF TAI CHI is an intriguing debut for Keanu Reeves as a director. A Chinese B-action flick, it's an odd choice to be sure, but we shouldn't forget that he's no stranger to martial arts, having memorably fought in the MATRIX films (and the upcoming 47 RONIN). Re-teaming with fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, Reeves has crafted an affectionate homage to vintage Hong Kong action thrillers, that's jam-packed with action.
Reeves- however- is not the star of MAN OF TAI CHI. Rather, he plays the baddie, Donaka Mark, his first role as a villain since THE WATCHER. The hero here is played by stuntman Tiger Chen, who worked with Reeves on THE MATRIX. While he's probably not the most charismatic of martial arts stars (he opts for the seriousness of a Jet Li, rather than the goofiness of Jackie Chan or the swagger of Donnie Yen), it can't be denied that he's a great on-screen fighter. Tai Chi isn't often thought of as a martial arts used for combat, but Chen kicks plenty of ass with it, giving the fights a different flavor from the usual brutal way guys like Yen or Li fight. His character is pretty much the standard hero part, with him initially being swayed by the promise of easy money, although if you've ever any doubt that Tiger is going to emerge the hero you haven't seen many kung-fu flicks.
Reeves himself has often been (unfairly) criticized as being a stiff actor, and I can't say he's done himself much of a favour here with his role as the baddie Donaka Mark. Throughout the film, I couldn't tell whether Reeves was intentionally playing the part in a hammy way, or if he was being sincere. Suffice to say, playing the bad guy does not come easily to Reeves, although he acquits himself well in the fight scenes.
Which brings us to MAN OF TAI CHI's main selling point- the fights. I'm happy to say that whatever the movie's shortcomings are in the way of plot or acting, it more than makes up for them in the dozens of fights. Reeves, with Woo-ping, stages them all in an exciting way, and never opts for too much frenzied editing or close-ups. All of the fighters (which include THE RAID's Iko Uwais) have a ton of ability, so Reeves doesn't have to cheat with the way they're shot. Even when Reeves himself fights, he never protects himself too much with quick-cuts, although it does feel like a few of his movements were speed up in the final brawl.
Apparently, MAN OF TAI CHI is getting a limited IMAX release, and it would be nice if people got to see it that way, as the fights are so elaborate they deserve to get something more than a VOD release. Sure, it's often cheesy, and even tacky, but when the actors are fighting it works. Luckily they fight a lot . It's more BLOODSPORT than ENTER THE DRAGON or IRON MONKEY, but it gets the job done, and will hit the sweet spot for action fans.
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