Keanu Reeves finally unveils his directorial debut with this pretty decent martial arts drama. While there are some flaws in the film, the final result is not too bad of a directorial debut.
“Tiger” Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Chen, making his lead role debut) is a deliveryman who is also the last descendant of the Ling Kong Temple. There, he trains with Master Yang (Yu Hai) in the temple’s form of Tai Chi. “Tiger” is also a competitor at the 4th annual Wulin martial arts tournament, having impressed the audience as a dark horse. His skills gain the attention of a businessman named Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), who offers a proposition.
Donaka runs an underground fight ring and offers Tiger to become his latest acquisition. However, Tiger refuses because he has learned fighting for money is dishonorable. When Tiger learns that the temple he trains in is up ro be destroyed for a development, Tiger feels he has no other choice. He must fight for Donaka. Taking on various fighters versed in different styles, Tiger learns a shocking revelation: the fights are broadcasted on the internet. At first, he is shocked but must go along with the plan.
However, Tiger begins to go through a change as he begins to become a raging fighter. When he displays the same new attitude at the Wulin tournament, his life soon begins to unravel, but it is only he who can put an end and make things right, no matter what it takes.
This film, which is not as much as a martial arts action film as much as it is about one man’s quest to find the right path, has been a process in making. One can date back to 1998, when Keanu Reeves was learning martial arts for the sci-fi film THE MATRIX. Yuen Woo-Ping, the film’s fight choreographer, hired stunt team member Chen Hu (HOUSE OF FURY) to help Reeves with his training. The two became friends and in exchange for learning kung fu, Reeves helped Chen with his English.
Tiger Chen makes a good debut for a lead role. Here, he plays a man who somehow wants more than the life he is living. However, he goes through a transition that turns him into a dangerous man. It is as if he truly loses all hope of who he is meant to be. He begins to slowly turn against the one who trained him, Master Yang, played by Yu Hai, co-star of Jet Li’s SHAOLIN TEMPLE trilogy. Ultimately, he must make the decision as to who he must become.
As for Reeves, he makes for a somewhat insane villain in Donaka Mark, the businessman who runs the fight ring. He is truly not about the spirit of martial arts, but more in the violent portion. He is also a wanted man by Hong Kong police Inspector Suen, played by veteran Karen Mok. Her investigation of Donaka serves as the main subplot of the film with Tiger being the main focus of the film. Back to Reeves, he tries his best to act all evil but the fans who have typecasted Reeves may find his performance somewhat laughable. Others may be quite surprised.
Reeves enlisted Yuen Woo-Ping to serve as the action director of the film. Woo-Ping enlisted his brother Yuen Shun-Yi (Eagle) and Ling Chi-Wah (Tony) as well as Reeves’ MATRIX stunt double Chad Stahelski and Jon Valera to serve as mixed martial arts choreographers. Reeves truly has done his work to learn how to properly shoot a fight scene.
Combining long shots, very minimal close ups, and a new complex version of the Steadicam, Reeves makes the action look terrific here. Some of the fighters Chen takes on include Brahim Achabbakhe, Jeremy Marinas, and Ocean Hou. Two hopeful fights, however, were a complete waste and considering the talent used, one can only wished they could have been properly made as the best fights of the film. In one fight, Chen takes on Silvio Simac, who plays a mercenary named Uri Romanov (perhaps a take on Scott Adkins’ Uri Boyka?), and it just shows Chen knocking him down and pummeling him with the ground and pound. The other is even more sad that this involved a fight everyone had high hopes for. That is Chen taking on THE RAID’s Iko Uwais. One had high hopes for this fight but it all was a waste of time, which was sad.
Despite the two failed hopeful fight scenes, it is somewhat fair to say that MAN OF TAI CHI is actually decent for someone’s directorial debut. Keanu Reeves truly knows how to work the camera and helped boost up his friend Tiger Chen. Should he get a chance to direct this genre of film again, let’s hope he can make better use of some of the talent as some of them, notably Simac and Uwais, were sadly wasted. For an overall effort, it is definitely worth a rental.