Movie Review: Man of Tai Chi
Man of Tai Chi is an ambitious movie. It is directed by first time director Keanu Reeves, he of the wooden acting and beautiful cheek-bones. It stars Tiger Chen, a virtual unknown for Western audiences, and a hard sell in the modern action world. It involves a little known martial art, Tai Chi, which if Western audiences are familiar with it at all, are only familiar with it as Kung Fu lite for the old and infirm. But like a true champion, this movie wears these obstacles like training weights, showing that a true martial arts movie can overcome the preconceived notions it will face, and deliver deadly repeated wind-mill kicks to the face. Wind-mill kicks to the face of enjoyment. God, that metaphor fell apart fast…
Man of Tai Chi (2013)
New to Netflix, Man of Tai Chi is the labor of love of several participants, notably Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen. While doing considerable Box Office business over-seas, Man of Tai Chi took the modern direct-to-video route of premiering as a full price rental on services such as Amazon Prime. At around the price of a movie ticket, it did decently, but certainly did not set the world on fire. It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t have more faith in this genre, which has languished of late, because Man of Tai Chi is about the best martial arts movie to come out it in a decade. It would be a shame if the only way we can see these awesome spectacles is via obscure rentals, as befell the other amazing martial arts movie of the 2010’s, The Raid- Redemption.
Everyone was…Tai Chi fighting?
The central story of Man of Tai Chi concerns Tiger Chen (cleverly using the pseudonym Tiger Chen in this film…) a young and talented student of a dying form of Tai Chi. In fact, Tiger is the sole student at a crumbling monastery where he is instructed in the methods of Ling Kong Tai Chi by the Asian version of Christopher Lee. His master is one bad-ass old man is what I’m going for here. And looks like Christopher Lee. Take my word for it.
Life is difficult for Tiger, but he honorably makes a go of it, working a crap delivery job in the day to help his master and aging parents, and training at night in order to fight in a major Wulin tournament, where he hopes to catch the attention of the world and show that his Kung Fu is number one. Unfortunately, he catches the attention of Donaka Mark (Keanu) who runs an extremely lucrative underground fighting ring. Keanu has just killed the star of the tournament, who was informing on him to the police. He needs fresh talent, and the novelty of a Tai Chi master is exactly what the doctor ordered. Because Tai Chi is good for your health…sorry, I can’t finish that joke…
Tiger is lured into the ring by promises of security work. He takes the ruse fairly well, seeing as a grown man attempts to kill him instead of interview him. Chen declines, not wishing to taint the honor of his school, but events unfold that put the very school in danger of foreclosure. So he takes the job kicking asses for money. And proceeds to kick plenty of asses. All of the asses. Each fight gets crazier and bigger than the last, until he’s fighting multiple opponents on stage at a floating pleasure boat while millionaires watch. Which is exactly how most of us would use our millionaire status, I assume. I know I sure would.
Having gained a taste for brutality, Tiger snaps during the Wulin Tournament and mauls his opponent, causing his temple to lose its historical preservation status (which was the whole reason he took the pit fighting job in the first place.) It seems silly that a 600 year old monastery is suddenly not historical because Tiger beats the holy hell out of a guy in a tournament about whose martial art is the holy hell beating-est, but we need a reason for Tiger to learn the errors of his way, and this will do fine.
Tiger turns snitch, gets Keanu’s sweet little death match organization shut down, and everything ends well. Except Keanu escapes and comes to kill Tiger at his monastery. So well, minus the angry block of wood trying to punch his face in. So actually, all’s well.
Man of Tai Chi showcases tremendous martial arts acumen. The wire work is minimal, and CG trickery is absent (or at least so well hidden that I failed to spot any.) This film just relies on the incredible physical prowess of Tiger Chen, a tenacious stunt man. If there is justice in the world, we’ll see Tiger gain the type of following fellow stunt man-turned-star Jackie Chan saw. Watching this movie, the purity of the fighting was definitely on par with Chan’s best outings in the 90’s.
The story is simple and straightforward, with little to distract from the action. The scenes involving the police are a bit wasted, though. The tough female detective who is working to unravel the case seems to be forgotten for much of the middle of the film, and the cops just ride in to save the day at the last moment without having needed the big detective story work up. Some more cat and mouse between Donaka and the cops would have been nice.
The acting is almost irrelevant, as most of the opponents are obviously picked for their martial arts skill, not their thespian ability. Keanu is Keanu, believable when he’s menacing, but stilted when not interacting via threats. He kind of rattles off zen one-liners at Chen, which feels oddly comical. But when it comes to fighting, Keanu brings the goods, and the final battle feels every bit as awesome as the professional fight scenes before it.
I would highly recommend Man of Tai Chi to even casual fans of martial arts movies. With green screen and CG crowding out the market for good old fashioned chop sockey, a by-the-book Kung Fu film is a rare treat. Hopefully we’ll see more of Tiger Chen in the future…and I actually look forward to Keanu’s next directing job as well. These two pair up nicely and seem to have a real passion for resurrecting the genre. Go get em, boys.