12
Apr
15

Man of Tai Chi

The struggle is real.

Keanu Reeves directed this 2013 martial arts film starring himself and stuntman Tiger Chen. When reviewing martial arts films, you often cannot judge them on the same merits as dramas, comedies, or other kinds of movies. First and foremost is the action, and everything else is secondary. I can forgive a lot of missteps in martial arts movies as long as the action holds up. Of course, it’s not all about the action, but I try not to let those other things color my review too much. With that being said, Man of Tai Chi is a really bad movie.
Man of Tai Chi is the first movie directed by Reeves. He also stars as the villain. He doesn’t really have a lot of screentime, but when he does show up, every second he is on screen is cringe worthy. He lowers his voice an octave and growls all his lines. Most of his lines consist of very short phrases such as “Finish him” or “You owe me a life” and yet with such limited dialogue, he still can’t deliver the lines believably. He also bizarrely cackles directly into the camera in one jarring scene.

The main character, Tiger Chen, is played by Tiger Chen. Apparently, they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a different name, sort of like how Jackie Chan’s characters are frequently named Jackie. Anyway, Chen lives in China and works in a dead-end job as a delivery man. He practices Tai Chi in his free time. His lives a fairly humble life. Through a turn of fate, he catches the eye of Reeves, who runs an underground fighting ring. He recruits Chen as a fighter, and pays him handsomely. Eventually, Reeves wants Chen to kill his opponents, and Chen tries to escape from the circuit. Chen’s acting is fairly standard. He was originally a stuntman, and has now graduated to a starring role. He’s about average for a martial artist turned actor. He certainly isn’t bad, but he doesn’t bring in an amazing performance.

Hi-ya?

The movie tries to juggle multiple plotlines such as a female cop trying to take down Reeves’ operation, Chen using the money to help his family, Chen trying to date a girl he likes, Chen turning his back on his Tai Chi master, and Reeves making Chen’s life a living hell. The movie can’t really sustain all these distractors. It becomes very unfocused. It might have been more successful if it had just kept the focus on Chen, and removed the superfluous stuff with the police and the girlfriend.
The movie is littered with cliches like the evil bad guy, trying to save the temple (i.e. save the rec center), the cop who does their investigation solo because no one believes in them, the hero turning his back on his master, etc. etc. Perhaps the most laughable of all, is that at the end of the movie Chen finally learns a special Tai Chi move which essentially gives him super powers in which he is finally able to kill Reeves. It was completely absurd, and totally out of place. Man of Tai Chi became Dragonball Z.

Kiss!

The biggest fault of the movie comes in the action scenes. They just aren’t interesting. There is plenty of action, so it certainly isn’t a boring movie. But the scenes are mostly just routine punching and kicking. Chen doesn’t really do any actual Tai Chi except in the beginning of the film. The rest of the stuff is just generic fighting moves. The action does nothing to set itself apart from the pack, and coupled with all the other problems, this is what really brings it down.
On the positive side, the movie was fairly well directed. Reeves has a good handle on his actors, and adequately paced the movie as it switched between fight scenes and plot points. Another area which I commend him is the bilingual nature of the movie. The Chinese characters speak Chinese (with subtitles), and the American actors speak English. This is carried throughout the film in a realistic manner. Reeves does throw a few gimmicks around (e.g. pointless strobe or time lapse effects), but mostly he directs in a straightforward manner. I’ll give him a pass. Next time around, with a little experience and a better script, he could turn in a solid movie. Reeves might have a new career for himself as an action director, just as long as he keeps himself out of the film.
Verdict: Bad
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