A man stands alone waiting to face an opponent in battle to get the needed money to save his Tai Chi temple. But in fighting for pay, and with his training not yet finished, is he preserving his honor—or abandoning it? Oh, if only this pounding soundtrack and sneering overlord offered some context clues!
There’s no mistaking that Man of Tai Chi, the directorial debut of costar Keanu Reeves, is a trilingual martial-arts movie fully embracing the joy of the fight and the genre’s potential for camp. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun (it is), or that the film isn’t suggesting deeper themes (it is).
Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen) is the last student of Ling Kong Tai Chi; his sifu, Master Yang, believes Tai Chi should be used to evade violence, not seek it, but that doesn’t make for much of an action movie. So Chen signs up for a martial arts competition that puts him on the radar of Donaka Mark (Reeves). Soon, he’s part of an underground fighting ring.
In between ruthless beatdowns, though, Chen starts to lose hold of being a “man of Tai Chi:” It is his chosen style, which he ostensibly represents in his fighting, but to be a man of Tai Chi also implies someone who uses the art to center themselves rather than conquer others and lives by its principles of meditation and balance. He loses both, and his destructive combat at the ongoing competition starts to taint his reputation. With the help of Hong Kong detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Mok), who’s vowed to bring down the fighting ring, Chen will have to take a stand against Donaka to salvage his honor.
Sure, Man of Tai Chi isn’t rife with surprises; this tale’s oft-told. But the comfort food of a trope buffet has made up many a solid action flick before, and there’s enough style to go around that whenever Chen sinks into Snake Creeps Down Through the Grass, the scene seems to take a breath, and there are enough steely gazes between cops to break through every glass wall in the precinct. Reeves shoots Hong Kong and Beijing as contrasts without suggesting they’re either futuristic wonderlands or mythical enigmas (plus he reveals a fondness for a symmetrical frame). In fact, some of the movie’s best moments are small, sharply-observed scenes of daily life in Beijing—including a sly beat when courier Chen pulls up to an address and has to stay on the phone with the recipient as he’s guided through a alley maze of doors—that feel like earnest attempts to ground the film in a China as close to real as Reeves can get.
The film isn’t wholly pitch-perfect. Every so often, the camp threatens to overflow—as when Chen watches a video of his own fall from grace, complete with flashing intertitles of the virtues he’s lost—and the effort to keep every fight high-octane apparently required punishing music and a chorus of meat-slapper foleys. But oddly, its biggest drawback is Reeves himself as the villain. It’s not that he’s incapable of villainy; his turn as an abusive husband in The Gift remains one of his best roles to date, and here he does a serviceable job of draining himself of his inherent affability. In the end, Reeves simply can’t commit to the unrestrained broadness his role demands. He gamely snarls into the camera at intervals, but it’s someone else’s halfhearted Willem Dafoe impression more than it is the malignant shadow Donaka Mark is meant to be.
But Man of Tai Chi has been in development for several years, and under its flash, still feels like the product of some care. It positions the ideas of exploitation and appropriation as the focus of the film, with Donaka as the personification of greedy Western influence on aspects of Chinese culture that are being appropriated for the gain of others. (He uses personal surveillance and broadcasts the fights to customers.) And, it’s deliberately separated from the idea of tradition vs. progress within Chinese culture. Chen’s world is already modern, so being steeped in Donaka’s world of wealth is a reflection of ill-gotten gain more than any inherent evil in technology itself; in fact, technology saves the day when the police are tracking Chen. And when Master Yang’s temple is targeted for real estate redevelopment, traditional values actually work in the temple’s favor, and compromise is possible. Not so in the fighting ring, where Chen loses the purity of his style as he becomes more ruthless—earning him dishonor in the public competition when he stops fighting fair—and only a return to the traditional tenets of Tai Chi will allow him to leave his anger behind. (And avenge himself on Donaka, of course. We’re not here to watch the temple meet fire code regulations.)
Of course, like any good action movie, this works as a straightforward story as much as it does a suggested parable of tradition under fire, and if you ever find yourself tiring of precinct politics or historical petitions, a fistfight is only a moment away. A solid first effort and an earnest fan of its formula—campy, brisk, secretly badass and made with heart—there’s a lot to like about Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi.