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Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Iko Uwais, Silvio Simac

Written By: Michael G. Cooney Directed By: Keanu Reeves

The Short Version

From China… behold the surprising directorial debut of Keanu Reeves.

Man of Tai Chi presents something initially familiar in a style of its own.

Tiger Chen is an effective fighter, and he sees plenty of action.

But the philosophy means just as much as if not more than the combat… as martial arts should be.

Man of Tai Chi isn’t perfect, but it is absolutely worth checking out.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s good.  Not top shelf, but tasty.

Pairs Well With...


An understated but effective combination.

“Finish him!”

What do you think of when I say “Tai Chi”?

Odds are that the first image that popped into your mind was a small but organized group of people wearing loose clothing in a park, probably at dawn, moving slowly and in perfectly synchronization, their arms making sweeping, dancelike arcs.

Odds are that you didn’t imagine what that group of slow-breathing, synchronized practitioners might look like if they suddenly decided to perform the same movements, only much faster.  And how much those movements would suddenly resemble punches, thrusts, blocks, holds, and body strikes, some of which carry the potential to be not simply debilitating but indeed lethal in a single hit.

Odds are that you did not picture those people kicking ass in combat.

Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen.  The forms of Tai Chi may be most popularly utilized as a means of attaining focus, fluidity, and clarity of mind, but at its core, Tai Chi is very much a martial art, and a powerful one at that.  So after tens of thousands of movies based on Karate, Aikido, Wu Shu, Tae Kwon Do, and so on, it should come as no surprise to find some Tai Chi oriented flicks cropping up from time to time…

…though I don’t think anyone expected Keanu Reeves to be making his directorial debut at the helm of one, and certainly not for a Chinese production group.

Surprise!  Welcome to Man of Tai Chi.

Stepping into the story, the Man of Tai Chi from the film’s title is Tiger Chen (who happens to be played by a man named Tiger Chen, which bothers me), a package delivery courier from Beijing who also happens to be the only student of the last living Master of the Ling Kong school of Tai Chi.  Though his Master urges his pupil to cultivate the meditative side of his practice, Tiger wants to prove to the world that Tai Chi is a powerful art worthy of respect as something more than a focusing exercise.  To this end, he enters a prominent martial arts tournament, and when he shocks the audience by handily defeating a well-known opponent, he also catches the eye of a foreigner living in Hong Kong by the name of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves).

As it so happens, Mark is not only the wealthy owner of a highly successful security firm, but he’s also the driving force being a “no holds barred” underground fighting tournament, and he thinks that Tiger could be the tournament’s next champion.  At first, Tiger refuses, but when his Master’s temple comes under threat of being condemned for redevelopment unless expensive repairs are made, the lure of quick and significant cash becomes impossible to ignore.  As Tiger progresses with his fighting, he becomes more violent and less disciplined, and two truths are revealed.  The first is that eventually, all fights in Donaka Mark’s tournament become fights to the death, and the second is that no one is allowed to just walk away from fighting…

If you’ve seen more than a couple of martial arts movies before, that synopsis probably sounds familiar, and it is… to a point.  But that’s hardly something to curb the enthusiasm of chop socky fans, is it?  Of course not; indeed, in many circles of fandom, formula is a requirement.  But let’s have a closer look at how Man of Tai Chi deals with that formula.

The Writing.  Man of Tai Chi is never going to win any awards for the fresh ingenuity of its storyline, nor is its script ever in danger of leaving any viewers lost or confused by its complexity.  With that said, its off-the-shelf frame plays well, and the video game simplicity of its style (which should come as no surprise, given writer Michael G. Cooney’s background) allows the viewer to just relax into the proceedings and become drawn into the film’s world, “advancing through levels” right along with the hero.

But then, after audiences are nice and settled in, the script pulls two neat tricks that I, for one, really appreciate.  First, it turns out that the story isn’t just about the fighting.  All of the Master’s talk about meditation, following the correct path, and the consequences of going down the wrong one actually mean something.  What’s more, they’re actually more important to the villain than the tournament combat is, and that’s a refreshing twist.  Just as refreshing to me is the script’s second trick: introducing a love interest character who never gets harmed or threatened.  You want rare?  That’s rare.

The Fights.  Needless to say, when it comes to movies like Man of Tai Chi, it’s the combat that the audience cares about, regardless of what the script does or what the villain has to say about his own priorities.  On that score, Man of Tai Chi doesn’t jump out as The Next Great Martial Arts Flick, but it’s certainly entertaining enough to be worth any interested viewer’s while.  Tiger Chen is a very effective fighter on the screen, and the camera does an excellent job of showcasing his stuff.  The combat choreography is solid, and detail oriented viewers will appreciate how much Tai Chi is kept as a centerpiece while our hero remains in focus.  (Of course other arts show up; that’s always a given.)  There’s wire work – the action director is Yuen Woo-Ping (he of The Matrix fame) and the movie is made in China, a double whammy that guarantees the presence of wires to create impossible scenarios – but it’s used judiciously, allowing the fighters on the screen to display their real world talents to greater effect and making the combat that much more exciting as a result.  There’s also a fair amount of variety to the frequent fighting, with two completely different tournament scenarios (“legitimate” and “underground”) presented throughout, along with bouts that occur outside of those frames.  (Kudos to the production design team, by the way, for some outstanding sets and venues.)

Unfortunately, the film’s two biggest disappointments happen to occur during fight scenes.  Both involve wasted potential in the form of opponents whose matches against Tiger Chen should be at the top of the movie’s highlight reel but which instead end up being cut short for reasons that I simply can’t fathom.  When Silvio Simac steps out as a nasty looking East Euro merc, the audience expects a major battle, but the contest, while not a bore, per se, ends up feeling too simple for its promise.  The biggest let down by far, however, involves the appearance of Iko Uwais for what the audience at first may guess is going to be the film’s climactic duel, but which instead never happens at all.  Man of Tai Chi loses a huge amount of mojo with this particular piece of rug-pulling; the fact that the movie ends up getting away with it says a lot for the strength of the rest of its combat.

It’s also a good thing that there is, in fact, one more battle to be had after the one that gets cancelled.  (Did someone say “Hadoken”?)

The Acting.  Though Man of Tai Chi gets most its initial looks courtesy of its director (we’ll get to him in a minute), it’s also supposed to be a springboard for its star, Tiger Chen.  As noted above, his fighting’s damn good, and when it comes to headlining chop socky flicks, that’s more than half the battle.  (No, he doesn’t quite bring the jaw-dropping combat mesmerism of a Bruce Lee or a Donnie Yen, but come on; who does?)  Beyond that, he’s not an automatic charisma machine like Jean-Claude Van Damme in his heyday, but he’s likable in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on.  Indeed, if there’s anyone else whose approach to character feels close to that employed by Tiger Chen, it’s that of his friend, co-star, and director, Keanu Reeves (whom Chen first met on the set of the Matrix films).  All in all, Chen’s top line debut is a solid one, and certainly good enough to warrant some follow ups to see what else he can do from the front.

As for Reeves, he does a fine job taking on the villain’s mantle; an interesting switch from his norm that brings to mind a role reversal from his work in The Devil’s Advocate.  (No, Reeves doesn’t actually play the Devil here, but it’s really easy to imagine.)  His understated intensity is a perfect complement to what Tiger Chen brings to the hero’s side of things, bringing a sufficient aura of evil to the character of Donaka Mark without allowing his star power to take over the proceedings and outshine the efforts of the guy the audience is supposed to be rooting for.

The Direction.  The approach that Reeves takes to directing feels very much like the one he takes to acting: a bit understated, but with an intangible intensity that cuts straight to the point and doesn’t allow anything to get in the way of his interpretation of what’s important.  It’s an efficient style that meshes well with Chinese action film philosophy, making his Big Chair debut with Man of Tai Chi seem not so strange at all given some reflection.  Dramatic moments play with just the right amount of gravity, the action is exceptionally well showcased, and a consistent atmosphere equal to the story being told is maintained throughout.  (Some may wonder where the fun is, but to me, Man of Tai Chi is one of those action flicks that does better without comic relief.)  I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film, but overall, I found myself reasonably impressed with Keanu Reeves’ debut as a director, and would certainly welcome the opportunity to see more of what he can do from the hot seat.

When all is said and done, Man of Tai Chi represents two solid debuts: one from its leading hero, Tiger Chen, and one from its director, Keanu Reeves.  No, it’s not groundbreaking, and no, it’s not perfect – indeed, it stumbles on a few occasions; once incredibly badly – but overall, this is a decent martial arts flick with the ability to appeal not only to the regular cadre of genre die hards, but also to curious newcomers drawn in by the director’s name.

Bottom line, Man of Tai Chi is worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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