'Man of Tai Chi' Review

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Universal

Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with 'Man of Tai Chi,' a martial arts flick in which he also stars as the enigmatic Donaka Mark, a man who pays the most skilled martial artists from around the world to fight in increasingly dangerous matches against one another for the amusement of rich people. But Reeves isn't the real star of the film -- the honor goes to Tiger Chen, the martial arts coordinator Reeves met on the set of 'The Matrix.' Chen plays a glorified version of himself, a struggling delivery man who practices the art of Tai Chi, but wants to use the zen-like exercise form for fighting. That's when he meets Donaka.

As a starring and directing vehicle for Reeves, 'Man of Tai Chi' is about as silly as you might think -- as Donaka, Reeves as all of about a dozen lines, many of which are recycled, like "You owe me a life!" and "He likes it!" It's the sort of B-level action movie you might expect Reeves to star in, the kind of flick that'd be more at home in the 90s, if not for the incredible fight choreography.

Make no mistake about it -- these fights are, for lack of a better word, awesome. With the assistance of legendary martial artist Yuen Woo-ping, Chen and Reeves put together some of the most engaging fight sequences you'll likely see on the big screen this year. These aren't flashy, fussy sequences embellished with special effects and big set pieces; Reeves the director lets the fists do the talking, and unlike other modern directors, knows how to appreciatively film the action. There's no epileptic camera work, no quick edits to hide flaws or add unnecessary kinetic motion; there's just fights.

Where Reeves the director fails is in nailing the tone. He plays the film with a face that's just a little too straight, and given some of the goofy dialogue and characters, the end result feels unintentionally comedic at times. Chen is a great lead though, and although he's not a seasoned actor, he's able to pull off some solid emotional beats by relying on facial expressions, particularly in interactions with his Tai Chi master, who doesn't approve of using the style for sport or financial gain.

There's some diversionary plotting with a detective trying to bring Donaka down, and an attempt to save the Tai Chi temple from being shut down by some bureaucratic types, all of which is sort of mediocre and takes away from what we really want to see: Tiger Chen kicking some serious ass.

During a Q&A after the film's screening at Fantastic Fest, Reeves spoke of his inspirations, which bizarrely included the films of Michael Haneke. Reeves said he was particularly struck by the Austrian director's use of angles and breaking the fourth wall to communicate with the audience -- you can see a little of that influence in 'Man of Tai Chi,' but the film is hardly as provocative or polished (either visually or intellectually) as Haneke's work.

As a martial arts action film, 'Man of Tai Chi' is fun enough -- the fights are engaging, Chen's moves are breathtaking, and Keanu Reeves goes full Keanu Reeves, unable to bring natural energy or diction to his role, instead creating a Ouroboros effect, in which Reeves has unwittingly become a satire of himself. Though it often feels goofy and a little too over the top, 'Man of Tai Chi' is a solid directorial effort for Reeves -- what he lacks in visual quality, he makes up for with a clear understanding of filming action, an understanding he undoubtedly picked up after years of working with guys like Chen and Woo-ping.

Rating Meter 6

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