The Matrix was a whole lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo wrapped around an action film then Keanu Reeves' Man of Tai Chi is Mortal Kombat with a touch of Zen. If that sounds utterly ridiculous and like it shouldn't work at all, then all the credit in the world to Reeves for finding just the right formula to make his directorial debut a resounding success.
The formula Reeves concocts is pretty simple: gather the greatest martial arts choreographers and fighters in the world, draft a simple old school plot that just barely connects each battle, then stand back and watch the feet and fists fly. Reeves reunites with Tiger Hu Chen and Yuen Woo-Ping, his trainer and fight choreographer respectively on The Matrix, and delivers a pure Hong Kong brawler with a slick, contemporary look. Hu Chen stars as Chen Lin-Hu, a package delivery boy by day, and a fierce student of tai chi in his spare time. Yes, tai chi, the gentle, relaxing martial art rows of senior citizens practice at retirement homes everywhere. While his ancient sensei urges him to use it only for meditation and finding his spiritual balance, Chen recognizes its physical power and fights in a nationally-televised tournament to help spread the word about this unknown style of combat. He proves to be a little too good at his job and catches the attention of bored businessman Donaka Mark, played by Reeves himself.
Donaka runs an underground fight club and let's just say that showing brutal domination is the way to stay in his good graces. In the very first fight we witness, a victor refuses to deal a killing blow, leading to Donaka bellowing "FINISH HIM!!!” When he refuses to do so, a guy dressed like Vega from Street Fighter emerges and snaps the loser's neck, followed by Donaka killing the winner in cold blood. Not the safest place to work, to say the least. Donaka's become tired of watching the same old fighters using the same techniques, but when he sees Chen on TV he immediately sets out to recruit him.
Seduced as much by the riches as the thrill of endless combat, Chen slowly turns from innocent student to merciless purveyor of violence while Donaka and a wealthy elite-class watch on closed circuit television. Of course it's obvious that there's something not quite right about Donaka and his mysterious empire, but it's confirmed by the presence of a detective (Karen Mok), looking to take him down. As he becomes more twisted, Chen's life begins to crumble around him and in desperation asks for more dangerous, more lucrative fights, to which Donaka eagerly responds "Then a fight you will have!"
Reeves isn't attempting to reinvent the wheel here. He's clearly looking to craft a very specific sort of action film, the kind he and other fans of the genre likely grew up on. We know the detective character as soon as we see her, and Chen's fall from grace and eventual redemption are pretty much written in stone, just as we know Chen will eventually be forced into a final showdown with Donaka. To that end, Reeves is out-of-his-mind comical as Donaka, playing him as a maniacal Bond villain ramped up a thousand degrees. It wouldn't be a total surprise to learn that Reeves studied the throaty delivery of Street Fighter's M. Bison in coming up with his character. Every line of dialogue is a hoot, and Reeves is clearly relishing in playing such an over the top bad guy. Tiger Hu Chen is probably better served doing jump kicks than acting, but he's efficient at presenting Chen as a naive innocent seduced by power and wealth.
While Reeves was unable to deliver the swooping and incredibly expensive camera rig he had initially planned, he more than delivers on the promise of 40+ minutes of martial arts action, choreographed with predictable beauty and flair by Woo-Ping. While he doesn't have the same extravagant resources as when he choreographed the stunning sequences for The Grandmaster, Woo-Ping manages to capture the subtle, elegant movements of tai chi and give them an unexpected ferocity. The fighting is fast, physical, and encompasses a number of diverse techniques so that it rarely gets repetitive. The only exception is in the location of each encounter, with most of the combat taking place in a rarely boring, dull room that looks like a storage locker. Fortunately they spice things up a bit more towards the end which goes a long way in forgiving the rather straight-forward plotting. Sadly, there's a gigantic missed opportunity when The Raid: Redemption's Iko Uwais turns up for what should have been an unforgettable battle opposite Hu Chen, but instead it's a major disappointment. Hopefully there's a longer cut of it ready for the Blu-Ray release.
When the final boss battle does eventually happen, in the midst of an ancient temple no less, Reeves doesn't embarrass himself opposite the faster, more experienced Hu Chen. On a physical level it doesn't compare to the other fights, nor should it really, but it works in an extremely simple good vs. evil way. Again, Reeves' ambitions are small but he scores a knock out against those goals. He's looking to bring his western viewpoint to eastern martial arts movies, and while his actual directing ability is modest, Reeves is smart enough to rely on those who know the genre better than almost anyone. For those who are in this for the fighting alone, they'll find no shortage of it in Man of Tai Chi. In a head-to-head death match against other recent films looking to capture the same kung fu spirit, Reeves' Man of Tai Chi stands victorious.
Man of Tai Chi is available now On Demand here.