Keanu Reeves knows kung fu (c’mon, The Matrix quote, you know you’ve mimicked it 1,000 times over), so it’s fitting that his first directorial feature be about a man of martial arts, specifically the subtle art of Tai Chi. Aptly titled Man Of Tai Chi, Reeves goes for a true, immersive feel by filming in China, creating a foreign brawler that could be marketed anywhere. Don’t worry Keanu fans, he gets out from behind the camera to play a complex character as well, and delivers a rather stellar performance. All the haters out there really won’t have anything to say about Keanu’s production, even if it is a little generic plot-wise, because Reeves delivers a tight watch from start to finish. Keanu may know his kung fu, but his crew knows just a little bit more in this admirable visionary debut.
Tiger Chen Linhu (Tiger Chen) is a simple man training in the art of Tai Chi, competing in a local tournament to be crowned champion. Tiger’s training is threatened though when his master’s temple is going to be seized and demolished, and this is when a mysterious man offers him an opportunity to make some extra money. Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) approaches Tiger and asks him to become a fighter, with prize money after each win. Tiger accepts, embracing more violence with each victory, losing the control that Tai Chi stands for. As he gets closer to saving his master’s temple, he also get closer to becoming a deadly fighter – not a Tai Chi master. Will Tiger abandon the honor and respect in Tai Chi and become nothing but an angry fighter, or can he see the errors in his ways and once again embrace the serene styles of Tai Chi?
Keanu didn’t touch the script here, as short film/video game scripter Michael G. Cooney took care of writing duties on Man Of Tai Chi. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with Cooney’s story, which flows along at a quick pace, so many films have dealt with martial arts drama the same exact way. Tiger’s journey is simple, his conflicts recycled, and his climax predictable, but Cooney’s script embraces the simplicity for the better. Asian culture always sets an inner struggle between honor and fame, and that’s the decision Tiger is given. We’ve seen it time and time again, different warriors being forced to choose between respect and something else, sacrificing personal morals for the betterment of others, but a strong delivery actually makes Cooney’s script stronger, holding our attention from start to finish.
Keanu’s direction is very skillful for a first-timer, hopping from battle scene to battle scene, with Tiger always being forced into action. Each fight scene is choreographed to display the beauty of Tai Chi, full of swift motions and continual movement, and Man Of Tai Chi accomplishes this brilliantly. Nothing is ridiculously over-done, like something you’d find in The Raid: Redemption – but that’s because Pencak silat is a completely different art form. Tai Chi is often used to reduce stress, channeling a peaceful place, making it more of a theatrical production than a form of martial arts. As you’ll see in the actual Tai Chi tournaments Tiger participates in, brutal attacks are disqualification material, as Tai Chi is all about mastering forms and being one step ahead of your opponent. Keanu properly captures this mentality while pitting the moves against other fighting forms, showing a wide array of ass-kicking techniques. Hell, he even gets in on some of the action himself, which had me absolutely surprised and impressed. Keanu’s got moves!
Side note – kudos to Tiger Chen (the actor) for his role as the actual “Man of Tai Chi,” as he not only gives a phenomenal leading performance, but shows a top-notch grasp of Tai Chi. All the fighters do a phenomenal job here, with Iko Uwais popping in for a little cameo, but Tiger’s leading man chops set him above the others.
While some may have scoffed at the thought of Keanu Reeves directing a martial arts thriller, Man Of Tai Chi is a simply entertaining watch that captures this mesmerizing Chinese art form. Cooney certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Tiger steps up his moves and leads us on an exciting, action-filled adventure envisioned by an unexpected master in Reeves. It’s not easy to take something generic and make it feel original, but Keanu accepts the challenge like the most focused, eager student, emerging as a battle-tested victor.
Man Of Tai Chi is focused, flows at a quick pace, and displays the art from beautifully. Keanu channels the many martial arts films of old, learning from the true masters.