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Man of Tai Chi

2013 | 105 min | R | 2.39:1

Man of Tai Chi


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Movie appeal

Martial arts59%


Theatrical release date

 01 November, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Man of Tai Chi


Screenshots from Man of Tai Chi Blu-ray

Man of Tai Chi Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, September 26, 2013

Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2013

Keanu Reeves is no stranger to the world of martial art cinema. The star of “The Matrix” trilogy, Reeves has spent a considerable chunk of his career in training, learning the moves of several martial art traditions to best serve the vision of The Wachowski Siblings. Now he’s stepping behind the camera, taking command as the director of “Man of Tai Chi,” employing his interests and expertise with screen movement to build a simplistic but volatile fight film. The picture isn’t exactly an intellectual pursuit, but the essentials of brutality, choreography, and cinematographic patience are well cared for under Reeves’s watch.

Studying the ways of tai chi under the supervision of Master Yang (Yu Hai), Tiger (Tiger Chen) struggles to center his energy, falling prey to impulsive actions as he years to develop his own take on the meditative force, implementing moves into tournament fighting. Scraping a living together as a delivery man, Tiger is lured into a meeting with Donaka (Keanu Reeves), a ruthless businessman who runs an underground fight club, with matches broadcast around the world to elite subscribers. Recruiting Tiger after witnessing his passion and naivete, Donaka hopes to push the new blood to his limit, placing him in aggressive contests against determined foe. Tiger, thrilled with a newfound source of cash to help protect Master Yang’s temple from commercial development, obediently follows Donaka’s orders, but quickly loses control of his tai chi instinct, growing more aggressive. Realizing his mistake, Tiger finds himself trapped in Donaka’s master plan of manipulation, watching the ultimate goal of the fights go from submission to murder.

Reeves is no fool. To help bring “Man of Tai Chi” to life, the filmmaker has reunited with “Matrix” choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, who recently contributed exquisite work to “The Grandmaster.” “Man of Tai Chi” lacks consistency in a great number of creative areas, but the fight sequences are fantastic, with Reeves blending camera and body movement to generate a swirling sensation to the violence, trying to keep the viewer in step with the action without reducing the chaos to a blizzard of edits. It’s impressive to watch, especially when Tiger cuts loose and begins to lay into his opponents, unleashing a torrent of punches and kicks that communicate the failure of spiritual balance, with the character feeding into his dark side once greed seeps into his system. Reeves knows exactly what people want out of the movie, and he’s happy to deliver it, imagining a series of thunderous encounters where men beat the tar out of other men, occasionally to the death. It’s executed in a thrilling, patient, sometimes mystical manner that respects the visual medium, allowing the audience to be swept up in the moment and not just assaulted by post-production tinkering.

The screenplay by Michael G. Cooney is extremely basic in design, keeping Tiger’s motivation straightforward, along with his spiritual descent. There’s also a subplot with a detective (Karen Mok) who’s out to bring Donaka to justice, struggling to find evidence after her last fight club informant was killed, fearing the same fate awaits Tiger as she tries to persuade him to help. As a villain, Donaka is thinly drawn, yet Reeves finds the right tone to play, imagining the antagonist as a satanic figure hungry for innocents to exploit. He growls and glares, giving Reeves the actor just enough space to apply dramatic pressure. Nobody is going to win any awards for their performances, but there’s dedication to the work that’s agreeable, securing what little around here passes for suspense and moral questioning -- a theme of spiritual distortion that’s nicely articulated by Yu and Chen, with the master and student facing off midway through the feature in a battle for tai chi’s purity.

Set design is inventive, giving the eye a few locations to study for the fight club sequences, though Reeves goes a little overboard when he introduces a strobe effect during a critical match between Tiger and two opponents. Those sensitive to such matters might want to take a bathroom break during this scene.

“Man of Tai Chi” is simple and secure, proving Reeves to be an assured architect of martial arts cinema. Perhaps it lacks in dramatic invention, yet the film tends to its moral struggles and procedural interests with style and speed, leaving room for the director to hone his gifts, hopefully to return to the genre once again and organize a more elaborate design of spiritual decoding and fist-first attitude.

Starring: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Iko Uwais
Director: Keanu Reeves

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