Man of Tai Chi is a film best appreciated by undemanding fans of old-fashioned martial arts films. I don’t mean that as a knock. A feature-length love letter to the art of tai chi, especially the Ling Kong style solely performed by the renowned martial artist Tiger Chen, Man of Tai Chi is an often undeniably silly effort marked by goofy dialogue and wooden acting. It’s not the kind of film that will rise to the top echelons of martial arts films, but damn is it entertaining.
A stuntman on The Matrix films, Tiger Chen became a close personal friend of Keanu Reeves during Kung Fu training and now the subject of Reeve’s directorial debut: playing a variation on himself, Tiger Chen is Tiger Chen, a humble delivery driver and student of Ling Kong tai chi who comes to the attention of security magnate/underground fight club coordinator Donaka Mark (Reeves) during a televised championship fight. Impressing Mark by proving the seemingly mellow martial art of tai chi as a very viable fighting style, Tiger is seduced into Mark’s underground pay-per-view circuit. First using only the money to save his beloved, ancient temple from destruction, Tiger soon comes to be swallowed by the allure of easy money and the power his wins give him, growing harder and meaner…until he discovers Marks’ true intentions and discovers it’s not that easy to simply walk away.
A simple (simplistic?) corruption-of-innocence story, the film’s loose plot is merely a clothesline to deliver a series of martial arts expos designed to showcase Chen’s prowess, and this is where Reeves delivers. Shooting in a clean, clear, crisp style that doesn’t bank too often on chaotic, stunt-obscuring editing, and shooting in an array of locales that gives the production design team ample chance to strut their stuff, Reeves trains his camera on Chen and his opponent-of-the-moment and lets the martial artist do his thing. There’s nothing as jaw-dropping as what’s been seen in something like, say, The Raid: Redemption, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s still impressive stunt work nonetheless and the fluid, watery movements tai chi is known for make for an interesting opposition against more blunt force martial arts and MMA work deployed against our hero here by his various nameless opponents.
It’s a good thing Reeves delivers in the fight arena, because he doesn’t really deliver as well anywhere else. The script by Michael Cooney is full of laugh out loud howlers, and many of them said by Reeves himself, who doesn’t do much for much of the film except hover around the edges of the scene insinuating evilness while looking natty in a suit. Chen himself comes across as an innately likable but not very arresting presence, and he’s not much of an actor; stolid and wooden, his character arc is less shown on his inexpressive face than in his fists as Tiger’s jabs and kicks grow harsher and more animalistic as his downward spiral progresses.
The sheer onslaught of fight sequence after fight sequence does grow a bit wearying after a while and begin to rob some of the latter moments of their impact. (Reeves also misses a big opportunity towards the end by having Chen face off against Raid star Iko Uwais and then aborting the fight before it ever really gets started.) Granted, many fans going into a movie called The Man of Tai Chi aren’t exactly looking for a great story, but a little breathing room between the fights probably would have benefited the movie far more greatly.
Then again, many of the old school martial arts films weren’t exactly the best films either, and of Tai Chi certainly is made with polish and finesse than many of those films. It’s even quite possible that much of the corniness of the material may have even been intended as an homage to the goofy dubbing and get-to-the-next-fight plotting of old kung fu movies. Reeves also eschews the tendency to overly exalt the “exotic” spiritual aspects of martial arts, instead appreciably focusing on the athleticism of the fighters. Man of Tai Chi is barely a “good” film in the traditional sense, but as a showcase for the fighting talents of Chen, and a giddily entertaining film in its own right, it’s a winner.
3 out of 5 stars