The battle for man’s mind, body and soul has waged since the Garden of Eden and nearly as long on film. It’s not necessarily the easiest theme to convey properly but one infinitely easier to do well using martial arts as the catalyst. I’d gather this is one of the driving reasons Keanu Reeves, a man heavily influenced with Eastern practices, chose it as the backdrop for his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi.
The fallible hero, Chen ‘Tiger’ Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen, stunt/martial artist for “The Matrix” and its two descendants) walks the righteous path, spending time with his aging mother and father, working diligently at his delivery job and paying the utmost respect to his Tai Chi Master, Yang (Yu Hai). But when the temple in which he studies is threatened by greedy outside forces, Chen forgoes his master’s teachings of peace and looks to earn fast cash fighting in an underground fight club bankrolled by shady billionaire, Donaka Mark (Reeves).
Slowly, steadily, Chen is broken down to his core forcing a reevaluation of all he knows to be true as he fights increasingly powerful opponents relying on increasingly barbaric methods of dispatch to win. It is here where Man of Tai Chi really excels. The fight scenes are natural and raw, and don’t rely on any of today’s camera trickery or fluff to capture their fast-paced brutality. Each sequence, carefully choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen (fight coordinator for the “Kill Bill” and Matrix series), is direct to the point yet gives an opportunity for each style employed by the combatants to have its “moment” in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, Tiger Hu Chen doesn’t have the presence for the spotlight outside of the fighting ring that he has in. Taking cues from Reeves — who gets rightfully criticized for much of the same — Chen is stiff, and has trouble doing anything much else than looking stone-faced (even when embroiled in life/death battles) and acting generally displeased with everyone and everything around him. Reeves as the opportunistic puppet master fares better, but only slightly. Playing a corrupting character devoid of emotion is right in his alleyway so he’s good but not good, if that makes any sense. Watching him partake in some of the action himself is bizarre, however. His lack of fluidity makes him look like a lumbering oak tree trying to practice roundhouse and front kicks (especially when compared with the more accomplished fighters). The only one who gets it right is Karen Mok as Sun Jingshi, a thankless police detective desperate to crack the underground fight ring and expose Donaka for what he is.
Also unfortunate is the blatantly obvious arc Man of Tai Chi follows and its heavy-handed good/evil representations (I can’t imagine Satan in human form would pronounce himself as such as he basically does here). Thankfully, scribe Michael G. Cooney doesn’t overflow the movie with much Eastern philosophy teachings (you know the yin-yang mysticism stuff) and mostly lets the fists do the talking.
The result is Man of Tai Chi is a decent enough effort that fans of mixed martial arts and old school kung-fu pics will certainly enjoy more than the rest.