Nearly 15 years after kicking digital behind in “The Matrix,” Keanu Reeves puts on the director hat to introduce the next generation to a new way of viewing martial arts that goes beyond standard chop-socky fare in “Man of Tai Chi.”
If the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club, then the second rule is not to disobey the boss, as an unwitting fighter discovers in the opening scene. When the fighter refuses to take Donaka Mark (Reeves) literally after being told to finish off his opponent, the warrior loses more than his employee parking.
Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Chen) is an overworked delivery driver (think FedEx on mopeds). When he’s not delivering parcels in the congested streets of Beijing, young Chen is spending time at Master Yang’s (Yu Hai) Tai Chi temple. Chen has all the moves, but he’s unfocused, believing power over spiritual balance is the way to excel, and more importantly, win fame through the nationally televised martial arts tournament. It’s not long before Mark catches wind of Chen’s fighting prowess and tries to bring him into the fold. Chen initially resists the promise of money and fame to be part of Mark’s underground fighting ring, but when situations threaten the temple, Chen gives in. As his victories begin to pile up, all the rage Chen’s been holding back begins to surface, prompting him to team up with an ambitious detective named Suen Jing-Si (Karen Mok) to bring down the elusive Donaka Mark before Chen’s next fight is his last.
“Man of Tai Chi” is probably one of the best martial arts films this side of “The Raid.” This may have been Reeves’ directorial debut, but he wisely played to his strengths, carefully coloring within the cinematic lines to make this appear far more than a vanity project. His relationship with Tiger Chen began years ago during the filming of the “Matrix” when Tiger was a stuntman for the film. Their chemistry onscreen is apparent, as there’s equal amounts of tension when they’re allies and, ultimately, enemies.
Oh, and the fighting is awesome.
You can’t help but giggle whenever Reeves says “Finish him!” He actually does, unintentionally or not, mimic the sound of the unseen character in “Mortal Kombat.” Reeves is not only a martial arts enthusiast, but was wise to bring veteran fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (“The Matrix” trilogy, “Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) on board. Tai chi is not known as a “hard” or offensive martial art. The slow, flowing movements are closer to yoga with an emphasis on balance and serenity, so it was quite a feat to take a martial art you can find being practiced in a park by seniors used to brutally beat the crap out of people.
The story of corrupted innocence and giving in to one’s darker natures is fitted for this genre, so it’s easy to let writer Michael G. Cooney off the hook for not giving the main characters enough backstory. Nevertheless, the task of crafting a story that walks the linguistic tightrope of using English and Chinese-speaking characters shouldn’t be underestimated. Martial arts fans and, of course, Keanu Reeves fans won’t be disappointed seeing the former Neo back in all black and kicking butt, even if he’s one of the bad guys. Although the six-foot-one Reeves towers over the seemingly diminutive Chen in the final battle, it soon becomes obvious that Reeves the director selected the right man for the job.