Film Review: Man of Tai Chi

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 28th January 2014.

At some time in their career, a Hollywood star feels the urge to step behind the camera and have a go at directing. Most wisely resist but for those who have helmed a feature film, the results are exceptionally variable. For every Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck and
George Clooney masterpiece, there are disasters by Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights), William Shatner (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Dan Aykroyd (Nothing but Trouble) and Steven Seagal (On Deadly Ground). Fortunately, those in the latter list seem to have flushed the directing bug out of their system and never returned to directing.

Man of Tai Chi is the directing debut of Keanu Reeves. A Chinese-US co-production, it’s unsurprisingly a chop socky martial arts affair. I didn’t know that tai chi was a fighting martial art. In my head the film’s title suggest ninety minutes of an old man doing his exercises under a tree in the park. If there was going to be any fighting, I could only imagine a scene that resembles 2 people playing Dance Dance Revolution, in slow motion.

The storyline features all of the standard martial arts film plot devices. Tiger Chen (former stuntman Hu Chen) is a loyal student of Master Ling Kong. He leads a disciplined life, working as a courier by day and studying tai chi in his dilapidated temple, which is conveniently marked for demolition. Discovered by the enigmatic Donaka Mark (Reeves), Chen is recruited to compete in underground fights which are broadcast online. As his fortunes rise, his fighting style becomes more aggressive and ruthless. Chen may have saved his temple but has he lost touch with the philosophy of his tai chi training? Only a fight to the death against the head of the brutal organisation will redeem his soul, of course.

To the director’s credit, Man of Tai Chi is well shot, with plenty of kinetic action scenes, although perhaps this is more attributable to the cinematographer Elliot Davis (Twilight, The Iron Lady) and master stunt coordinator Woo-ping Yuen (Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). As a standard for this genre, the plot is essentially a series of boss fights and every character is extremely, extremely serious.

Playing the onscreen bad guy, Reeves has made a bizarre choice to deliver all of his lines in the style of his Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus character. I suppose with a screenplay written by Michael G. Cooney, mostly known for his Resident Evil 6 and Devil May Cry 4 video game scripts, you should’t expect dialogue more complex than, “Finish…him!!”

Man of Tai Chi is a multi-lingual feature. I watched the film via streaming and for some reason, none of the lines in cantonese or mandarin were subtitled. That accounts for about a third of the film. I’m pretty sure I managed to follow the narrative but there is a chance that the actors were reciting their shopping lists. “Milk, bread, cat food, fight!!”

Plot holes abound. For instance, how can a single hand held SLR camera somehow broadcast fights with multi-angle shots? However, Man of Tai Chi is an enjoyable romp so switch your brain off, grab some popcorn and enjoy some ridiculously “serious” Keanu silliness.

Published in: on February 18, 2014 at 22:21  Leave a Comment  
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