Film Review: Man of Tai Chi

Martial artist finds his values challenged when he joins an underground fight club.

A derivative B-movie with artistic pretensions, Man of Tai Chi is noteworthy primarily as the feature directing debut for Keanu Reeves. A showcase for Tiger Chen Hu, a stuntman and trainer who worked on the Matrix trilogy, the movie features several prolonged martial-arts battles choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, another Matrix veteran. Kung fu completists will want to check this off their lists, but even the most devoted Reeves fans will find it hard to sit through this mishmash.

Using his Tiger nickname, Chen plays a Beijing messenger who dreams of winning a martial-arts tournament. Tiger practices the "Ling Kong" form of tai chi taught by Master Yang (Yu Hai), whose school is in a crumbling, 600-year-old temple. Developers want to raze the temple for a real-estate project. Tiger's friend Ching-sha (Ye Qing), an urban planner, tells the fighter that money is the only way to stop the project.

Which brings Tiger to Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a mysterious businessman who had previously offered the tai chi expert a job in his security department. Instead of working as a guard, Tiger takes on martial-arts opponents in private bouts. What Tiger doesn't realize is that Donaka is the mastermind behind an underground gambling ring that stages illegal death matches.

Hong Kong cop Suen Jing Si (Karen Mok) investigates Donaka, even after her boss Wong (Simon Yam) orders her off the case. She tries to persuade Tiger to expose Donaka's fight club. But Tiger has developed a taste for blood. Will he regain his honor before it is too late?

With his unruly hair and tiny frame, Chen is an engaging screen presence. He's not much of an actor, however, even when playing a role roughly based on himself. His fighting skills are impressive, but they have not been captured very well here, even with Yuen Wo Ping staging the action. Poor editing tends to bury good moves under a lot of empty virtuosity. The fights lack both focus and narrative, and fail to build momentum.

Reeves does a credible enough job as director, despite some odd choices. He tries to pump up the weaker material with flash-frames, intertitles and grating metal noise. Some sets have the chintzy bad taste of a 1970s kung fu film. But overall, Man of Tai Chi shows respect for the genre, gives good acting opportunities for old pros like Mok and Yam, and moves at a decent clip.

On the other hand, this could be one of the worst screen performances Reeves has ever delivered: dull, humorless, psychologically opaque. As he intones preposterous dialogue or stares woodenly at computer monitors, he makes Man of Tai Chi a chore to watch. Let's hope in his next film he stops trying to turn Enter the Dragon or Game of Death into a philosophical discourse.