In the years in between Keanu Reeves last big screen appearance in The Day the Earth Stood Still, he has taken the time to try his hand behind the camera. The result is a Hong Kong/American co-production called Man of Tai Chi. It is a traditional martial arts tale set in a modern world and shows that Reeves was paying attention when he was on all those movie sets. It is a competently directed and very entertaining martial arts yarn. Reeves also shows respect for the martial arts by allowing the fights to be seen and not just chopped into music video style bites. It also helps that he reunites with his Matrix choreographer, the legendary Yuen Woo Ping.
Man of Tai Chi definitely feels old school in its approach and while some may view this as a negative in modern film making, it really isn't. There is nothing wrong to a traditional approach to story telling, and this story Could just as easily have been set in the past with a style similar to that used in the classics from the Shaw Brothers studio. This is a movie about one man's journey of self discovery, the traps of the world around you and the dangers of being manipulated by outside forces.
This really is a vanity project for Reeves, who comes across as an old school martial arts fan. To that end, Reeves and screenwriter Michael G. Cooney have crafted a movie that pays homage to the tales of their youth, the Saturday afternoon Kung fu theater, only moved to the modern day. A blending of past and present.
At the center of the movie is Tiger Chen Hin-Lu (Tiger Chen), a young tai chi student who pays respect to his parents and his master on a daily basis. He goes to his job as a delivery man and does the best he can. Still, he has a bit of a rebellious side, a side that believes tai chi can and should be a respected and powerful martial art that can be used in combat. Against his master's wishes, he enters a martial are tournament where he excels, surpassing the expectations of those watching.
On the other side is an American businessman who runs an underground fight club. His name is Donaku Mark (Reeves). His fight club is ruthless and his fights are to the death. As is the case with most of these types of guys, he is under investigation by the police, although they have no proof of wrongdoing. Heading the investigation is Sun Jingshi (Karen Mok).
Well, Donraku and Tiger cross paths when our evil bad guy is looking for a new competitor for his fights. In Tiger he sees someone with unique skills, power, desire, and innocence. He approaches him and gets him to fight. Things change when the mention of money causes Tiger to rethink. Honorable fighters do not fight for money, but when his temple is threatened, he dives into the underground fight world, and he likes it. He really likes it and begins to spiral away from his original core beliefs, he becomes aggressive, allowing the killer instinct out of the box.
Man of Tai Chi follows a well established path. Young, innocent, and skilled fighter is tempted into a world that compromises his honor, he falls for its allure and it changes him, and he must fight to rediscover his center and who he is in order to return to the honorable man he was and defeat evil.
It really is nothing new, but it is executed very well. Tiger Chen is a charismatic presence with some fantastic fighting skills. It is involving to watch as gets drawn into this dark world as he changes into that which he hates. It is also fun to watch Keanu Reeves play this over the top bad guy, which seems to parody himself a little bit.
The fighting, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, is excellent and shot in a way where you can be involved in the immediacy, but still be able to see what is going on. I was able to tell different styles being used by various fighters, I could not tell you what the styles were, but you able to see these fighters at work, including The Raid's Iko Uwais. The martial arts are well represented and it is great being allowed to watch them and actually see what is going on. You can tell these are skilled martial artists and not merely actors faking it on a month of training and clever editing.
Man of Tai Chi is hardly original, but it is well made, entertaining, and has plenty of action. It is a movie that shows respect for the martial arts and their history. Keanu Reeves shows a good eye and steady hand as a director. It is not flashy, but does show some attention to craft, it will be interesting to see what he does in the future.
It has to be said, for as much as I like the movie as as fun as the fights are, he inevitable showdown with Keanu was a bit underwhelming. Keanu does not have the benefit of the special effects used in The Matrix and he resulting fight seems slow and plodding. Chen seems to be holding back, knowing his opponent is not at he same skill level but still has to sell the threat. I did, however, like the jab they took at Reeves' Matrix role, plus the one they took at The Karate Kid.
Audio/Video. The film is presented in a ratio of 2.4:1 and it looks quite good. The colors are generally muted, with a few colorful areas like the fight arena where they are allowed to pop. This appears to be by design, as detail is very good throughout, faces are good, blacks solid, and there is nice texture seen. Nothing to be upset with here, it is a nice visual presentation.
Audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and it does a fine job with dialogue focused through the center, solid levels for the music, and a nice punchy sound to the punches and kicks. They have a heightened presence, as you would expect, but it is not overdone. This is a good track that presents its material well.
Extras. There is a commentary track with Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen. It is not a great track as it feels like they very often get caught up in watching the movie only occasionally offering some reminiscing on the scene being shown. There is also a making of featurette that covers some aspects of the production, including Reeves direction along with the use of Tai Chi.
Closing Note. This really is an entertaining movie. It is far from the best example of the genre, but it is still something I feel no shame in enjoying and recommending. It is solidly made, features very good martial arts and the disk looks pretty darn good.
December 14, 2013
Posted by Christopher Beaumont at 12/14/2013 03:54:00 PM
Labels: 2010s, 2013, Action, Blu-ray Review, Karen Mok, Keanu Reeves, Martial Arts, Movie Review, Thriller, Tiger Chen
Chris has been an avid movie watcher for decades, getting into the writing game in 2004. Since that time he has contributed to a number online publications as well as running CriticalOutcast.com. In addition to movies, Chris is a big fan of music, particularly metal, and will never give up hope on his beloved Mets.