Fantastic Fest 2013: Keanu Reeves' Directorial Debut 'Man of Tai Chi'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 28, 2013
Keanu Reeves knows Tai Chi, and, as evidenced by the appropriately titled Man of Tai Chi, the man's directorial debut, he knows it well. What a flurry with which to come out swinging right off the bat. Man of Tai Chi suffers, a lot, from the random cheesiness and ankle-deep script at work, and there is so much about the film that simply should not work. All that is easy to discard, however, when you consider just how kickass the action bouncing before your eyes truly is. Reeves has a keen eye for action and not much else, but Man of Tai Chi has a job to do, a very specific job; at what it aims, it absolutely has pinpoint precision. It almost makes you wonder what Reeves might do with the rest of all that Kung Fu he learned so long ago.
Reeves takes a backseat to the lead role here, giving himself instead the villainous part of Donaka Mark, a wealthy businessman whose business is interesting indeed. He runs an underground fighting competition, one that streams live all over the world and is constantly dodging the actions of local, Hong Kong police. Evidently, in the world of Man of Tai Chi, MMA and UFC aren't a thing. Mark's ultimate goal is to find the most innocent, purest fighter on the planet and corrupt him, force him to take another man's life.
His latest candidate for said corruption is Chen Lin-Hu or Tiger Chen as his friends call him. Chen studies the art of Tai Chi, and utilizes the focus and balance in the artform for random, MMA competitions. Mark notices the man, and despite the cries from Chen's master that the way of Tai Chi is one of control, not power, the student decides to take Mark up on his promise of wealth. It doesn't help that Chen's master's Tai Chi temple is under threat of closure, the Hong Kong version of "we gotta save the rec center".
That temple angle to the story is just one of the myriad of hokey points screenwriter Michael G. Cooney incorporates into his script. Matters aren't helped in the writer's character development, throwing Chen a love interest that adds very little and a female investigator trying to take Mark down. It isn't long before all the players in Man of Tai Chi are revealed and all the revelations have been put on the table. There are no grand surprises, no awesome twists or turns to keep your attention fully grasped. Chen's battles are easily predictable, and since he's the only fighter we see carry over to more than one fight, the outcomes of each one are pretty much meaningless, but that's besides the point.
Man of Tai Chi isn't about the screenplay or the character and plot developments. It's about the action, and Reeves, stepping behind the camera for the first time on a feature film, knows exactly how to handle that. His camera moves in and out of the action, almost bouncing off the fighters as their fists and feet do that very same thing. The choreography by Yuen Woo-ping (fight choreographer on The Matrix trilogy, which go hand-in-hand with Reeves' history) is stunning to look at, even if the obvious wirework is unfortunate. That adds to the hokier side of the film, to the point that nothing is ever taken too seriously. Despite the film's R rating, it ends up being quite tame and bloodless considering all the fists touching faces here.
Reeves appears to be having a blast playing his nefarious character. He scowls and stares with the heaviest of brows, looking damn sharp in those black suits and driving that Lamborghini. You can see why he gladly chose the role for himself. But, again with the action, it's when Mark is able to actually use his physical attributes that the character really comes to life. Chen, on the other hand, is quite subdued, almost peaceful in his actions, and whether or not you recognize the look of Tai Chi at work, the focus, precision, and deliberateness of the artform is undeniably felt.
Man of Tai Chi is a shallow Koi fish pond, one with clear waters and not many rough edges running around the sides. But you don't observe a Koi fish pond for just the pond itself. You observe the fish, and the metaphorical Koi swimming around Man of Tai Chi are, to put it succinctly, badass. Keanu Reeves' steady eye and ability to achieve downright awesome action overwhelms any problems the film may run into elsewhere, and run into problems this film excels at. At the end of the day, though, the action in Man of Tai Chi works masterfully, and Reeves' future as an action director just got one more anticipating mind racing.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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