Man of Tai Chi Review
Keanu Reeves knows Kung fu. And you know that he knows. But did you know that he knows that you know, and that he is going to use that to hilarious effect in his directorial action-comedy debut?
Keanu Reeves is aware you know that he knows Kung fu. Amongst the other skills downloaded into Reeves’ persona from his experience with The Matrix, awareness must’ve been one of them. Reeves expresses new productivity with this ascertained meta-knowledge in his directorial debut, a martial arts movie set in China. With Man of Tai Chi, Reeves establishes why we have cared about this former Wyld Stallyn for at least two decades, and why we should pay attention now that he is also behind the camera. With numerous Chinese production companies supporting his efforts, Man of Tai Chi enjoys the rare prospect of a Hollywood star actually going to modern China. Tiger Chen plays a character of the same name, a package deliveryman who studies Tai Chi under a master. When the temple is given an eviction notice for its outdated safety conditions, Chen resorts to using Tai Chi, a soft and peaceful form of martial arts, in competitions to win money. This draws the attention of stoic douchebag Donaka (Reeves) who eventually recruits Chen to fight privately for him—while broadcast cameras secretly roll. Chen learns that his Tai Chi skill can be used for power, leading him on a destructive course. As they are always to do, the Hong Kong police are in search of Donaka (as led by Sun Jingshi, played by Karen Mok) and are also trying to save Tiger Chen before he becomes another one of Donaka’s murdered losing opponents. Before his lead role in Man of Tai Chi, Chen did stunts for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, along with Charlie’s Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this film, he is a discovery, executing take-downs with the ruthlessness of Iko Uwais in last year’s sublime action paradise The Raid: Redemption. Working through his own mini-Luke Skywalker arc, Chen makes for a fine underdog: A character to take seriously in this delightfully geeky martial arts project from Reeves. Reeves introduces the concept of meta-filmmaking with his self-placement as the film’s villain. Often shown wearing Matrix-black garb, sitting in front of TVs, hatching maniacal plans from the comfort of a swanky living room (with its own meditation garden) Donaka is a fair nod to any criticisms of what Reeves the director is doing – an obnoxious white westerner who comes to a foreign film scene, recruiting local talent as his own, (with Chen even using his real name). He colors his character with overdone volume swells of music (a goofy method to project seriousness), and spare usage of dialogue, sometimes with comically short Dragonball Z-like outbursts. It’s all intentional with Reeves allowing his star to take the film’s negative energy, and for the director to further wink at his previous Matrix “I know Kung fu” dialogue. Man of Tai Chi’s script by Michael G. Cooney (who has a story credit for video game Resident Evil 6) is an original one that relies on perhaps one too many conventions. Not entirely able to excuse its campiness, the dialogue for Man of Tai Chi can be distractingly wobbly (an exchange: “Give me a fight!” is responded with “A fight you will get.”) Story clichés bleed through as well, but are thankfully handled with speediness; the usual buzzkill cop subplot takes away no momentum from the energy of the film, satiating any anxieties that this moive could degenerate to Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Reeves simply wasn’t trying to reinvent the genre with his first directorial outing, but fulfill it as best as possible. True to our own priorities when viewing such a project, Man of Tai Chi focuses its worth towards its martial arts displays, of which Reeves is working with a choreographer master: Yuen Woo-Ping, previously of Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, and various Jackie Chan classics. Especially for fans of stylized fighting that gently uses wire-fu techniques, the combat scenes make this newest cinematic roundhouse worth a viewing alone, packing diversity and surprise as Tiger Chen’s Tai Chi skills evolve in a visible manner. This may not have the instruction that The Grandmaster had with Kung fu, but Reeves’ organization does prevent the method from losing its specific stylistics. The director complements Woo-Ping’s work with a camera that moves freely, often circling around fighters. Different from his initial “proof of concept” video he made a year ago for this project, the visuals are not as acrobatic, but the constant camera movements keeps the combat itself fluid, allowing cuts to fulfill their invisible purpose. Fights are often shown in wide coverage, and longer takes, all of which prove to be advantageous to earn desired tension and satisfactory surprise. Working within the storytelling bounds of China’s censored culture, Reeves is able to actively respect their traditions but also utilize their landscape for reflection upon his own career, creating this tale of a performer who loses way in Tai Chi with more personal significance. With Chen’s own descent into personal darkness, Reeves the filmmaker makes his most interesting point concerning Chen’s audience’s desire to witness the loss of innocence; a pretty sharp and damning moment from a celebrity to a culture that immortalizes him with their attention. It’s worth noting that Man of Tai Chi, an awesome Saturday night waiting to happen, is currently available on VOD. But if geographically possible, I’d recommend seeing it in a theater in order to witness the burgeoning of a new cinematic Keanu Reeves, and to appreciate the epic aesthetic this movie desires with its numerous bass drops and moments of pure martial artistry. Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
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