November 4, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Tai Chi

It is had to believe I has been five years since we have seen anything significant from Keanu Reeves. The last time we saw him on the big screen was back in 2008 with that terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. I know Keanu isn't exactly a great actor, but I have always liked him, so I was particularly happy to see the trailer for 47 Ronin last month, then this happened. I was scanning the list of movies opening locally and I came across one called Man of Tai Chi, which just happens to be directed by one Keanu Reeves.

So, in addition to making 47 Ronin, Reeves has taken a step behind the camera to try his hand at directing. What I found interesting, just as the movie was beginning, was that the movie was a Hong Kong production. I figured that such a notable Hollywood figure would get his films produced through, well, Hollywood. I mean Universal has their title cars before the movie, but I suspect that is more for distribution purposes. Anyway, the movie itself feels very much like a traditional Kung fu movie, and that is all right with me.

Man of Tai Chi feels very old school in its approach and while some may view this as a negative in modern film making, it really isn't. At its core, this really is a vanity project for Reeves, who I suspect is 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. At least that is how I see it.

At the center of our tale 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.

On the other side is an American businessman who runs an underground fight club. His name is Donaku Mark (Reeves). His 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.

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, 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.

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.

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.


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