A film review by Craig J. Koban November 8, 2013


2013, R, 105  mins.


Keanu Reeves as Donaka Mark  /  Tiger Hu Chen as Chen Lin-Hu  /  Jeremy Marinas as MMA Fighter  /  Steven Dasz as Vip audience  /  Karen Mok Man-Wai as Sun Jingshi  /  Michael Chan as Police Officer #1  /  Qing Ye as Qinsha  /  Yu Hai as Yang  /  Sam Lee as Tak Ming  /  Iko Uwais as Gilang Sanjaya

Directed by Keanu Reeves  /  Written by Michael G. Cooney

MAN OF TAI CHI – which marks Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – seems to have a great understanding of what it’s trying to accomplish and does not seem to stray away from those goals during its 105 minutes.  Inspired partially by the life of Reeve’s real friend off-screen, Tiger Hu Chen – whom worked on THE MATRIX films as a stuntman – MAN OF TAI CHI is essentially a showpiece for displaying Chen’s (who's the star here) stunningly dexterous physicality while relaying to the film world what a remarkably adept and confident director Reeves just happens to be.  And hey, he also stars in the film playing – whoa! – a sociopathic villain that unavoidably has to do battle with the hero in the final act. 

In the film Tiger Chen plays Chen Lin-Hu, who happens to be the only student of his sensei’s Tai Chi martial arts style.  Chen is a good student and can physically match his master, but he seems to lack the keen philosophical underpinnings to be a fully realized student.  When not training, Chen works a menial job as a deliveryman, but his whole purpose in life in his tai chi. He fights in local competitions, and his obvious skills and talent catch the eye of the nefarious Donaka Mark (Reeves, fully harnessing his Keanu-ness), who promptly offers him a top secret security job….or so Chen thinks.  Seeing as he is desperate for money to help save his master’s training temple from ruin, he obliges Donaka’s request. 

Chen’s job interview is one for the proverbial ages.  He is secretly taken to an undisclosed location and placed in a semi-large and empty room surrounded by surveillance cameras.  Without warning, an opponent emerges that Chen must do combat with and win in order to placate 



Donaka’s wishes.  Of course, Chen is able to mop the floor clean with his opponent, but when he is forced to endure more and more opponents of increasing variety and lethality, the reality of his situation begins to take shape.  He discovers that Donaka does not want him for a security detail, but rather for him to become a paid contestant in a vast and elaborately staged underground fighting ring.  Initially, Chen can’t bring himself to sacrifice the honor that his master has taught him (i.e. – using tai chi for monetary gain = BAD), but with the impending demolition of his master’s temple becoming a foregone conclusion, Chen begrudgingly agrees to be Donaka’s puppet…that is until he can’t mentally take it anymore. 

The script for MAN OF TAI CHI is, yes, pure unrefined corniness all the way through and contains enough unintentionally hysterical dialogue – often uttered in multiple languages – to shake a stick at.  My personal favorites were (master to Chen), “You are not controlling your tai chi, your tai chi is controlling you!” or (announcer at one of the matches) “Chen has violated the spirit of competition!”  The overall plot trajectory as well seems judiciously lifted from about a dozen or so other past chop-socky efforts.  Then there is Reeves as the baddie, and he reaches a whole other hemisphere of…how shall I say it…enjoyably and entertainingly stiff and stoic line readings done with just his peculiar brand of robotic delivery.  A night after seeing the film I’m still trying to process whether he’s purposely aiming for a wooden performance of high camp…or not.  One thing is for sure: seeing Reeves grit his teeth as a monotone protagonist is kind of merrily engaging.  

Yet…let’s face facts…the silly story and vanilla bland performances are but a closeline for MAN OF TAI CHI’s impressive, show-stopping martial arts action sequences, which are indeed many.  Reeves is no stranger to the genre, so he obviously paid attention while on THE MATRIX films in terms of how to harness fight scenes with the proper blend of clarity, precision, and confidence.  Working with choreographer Yuen Woo Ping and cinematographer Elliot Davis, Reeves breathes substantial life into his stylish looking film.  What’s great here is that he uses long takes and smooth tracking shots that not only give Chen’s battles a visual grace and refinement, but they also refreshingly abscond away from the editorial overkill that permeates so many modern action films.  When the sequences are not brutally effective and efficient, they sometimes come off as almost eerily beautiful, as is the case with a psychedelic battle pitting Chen against two opponents on a neon-lit nightclub stage.  Reeves, if anything, displays real aptitude as a filmmaker here.  I want to see more from him. 

The aforementioned hamminess of the film may blind viewers to what a decent actor Tiger Chen is on top of being an extraordinary stunt performer.  Not only is he a superbly conditioned athlete that convincingly sells every fight scene he’s involved in, but he also relays his character’s inner battles rather well.  It does provide for a bit of a whiplash effect going back and forth from Reeve’s unrelentingly mechanical line readings and Chen’s more grounded and sincere performance work, but Chen – akin to Reeves as a director – seems to own his responsibilities in the film and wholeheartedly delivers.  And when Chen and Reeves finally go mano-a-mano in the film’s climax, the film truly builds to a deeply satisfying crescendo.  That, and for a man pushing 50-years-old, Reeves seems almost inhumanly youthful looking and flexible. 

I’m not sure what else I could possibly say about this film, other than, of course, that it’s worth a look.  Maybe not so much for the film’s stilted dialogue, preposterous plot contrivances, or wanton predictability; those are innately forgettable elements.  Yet, there is no denying that Reeves certainly has the goods to make it as a filmmaker, as he displays more than a modicum of talent in the film, not to mention that his star Tiger Chen is an exhilarating physical performer that will elicit easy wide-eyed amazement from audience members.  This is a competently handled martial arts extravaganza that harnesses its chi rather well.

  H O M E