Man of Tai Chi, the directorial debut of The Matrix's Keanu Reeves, is a new-fangled chopsocky flick that doesn't skimp on the good stuff. In fact, around half of the running time is devoted to fights featuring Matrix series stuntman-turned-actor Tiger Chen (playing a character named Tiger Chen) and choreographed by fight film legend Yuen Woo Ping. Working with such a strong team, Reeves delivers an assured first effort behind the camera.
Reeves also gives himself a juicy villain role as Donaka Mark, who runs an underground fighting ring fronted by a security company. We first see him murdering one of his own fighters after the man refuses to strike a fatal blow against his opponent. When Donaka sees Tiger Chen, a put-upon courier, handily clobber somebody at a martial arts match, he sees a potential new protege. Tiger is hungry to show that Tai Chi is more than just exercise, and with his master's temple in danger of being foreclosed and bulldozed, he needs money too.
The movie then becomes a tug-of-war between two masters, the master of Ling Kong Tai Chi (Yu Hai), often clad in white and always trying to get Tiger to seek balance in his energy, and Donaka Mark, always dressed in black and trying to get Tiger to unleash his power so he will not just win fights but become a vicious killer. Tiger is seduced by what the underground fighting has to offer him, both in a financial sense and in how it makes him feel more powerful than ever before. The fact that this might lead to murder does not enter his mind.
The movie is very black-and-white in its morality, and so Tiger's fall from innocence is less interesting than it could be. But, fortunately, the movie subscribes to a character-development-through-fighting approach, and therefore is never boring.
Karen Mok appears as a police detective trying to bust Donaka Mark's fighting ring, but who is always one step behind, largely thanks to Mark's constant use of surveillance cameras. Many of those cameras are also frequently trained on Tiger, even when he is not fighting, which at first suggests that Mark is beyond paranoid but turns out to relate to an interesting twist late in the film. Ye Qing plays a crushworthy office worker who tries to help get the Ling Kong temple legal protection from being torn down, but the movie is so focused on Tiger's infatuation with winning fights that their relationship never gets a chance to develop into a typical romantic B-story.
For a genre flick, Man of Tai Chi delivers its fight-film thrills without being too insulting to your intelligence. While a more layered story, with a more fleshed-out protagonist, certainly would have been nice, action fans looking for a good time will get a kick (and a punch and a throw) out of it.
Shot with an Arri Alexa Studio camera, the film has a look that could conceivably be mistaken for film at times, but has the sharpness of digital cinematography. The AVC-encoded 1080p 2.40:1 image looks spot-on, with no noticeable compression issues or banding. The color palette is a little dull and gray, but that was obviously an artistic choice by the filmmakers.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English & Cantonese & Mandarin audio track is also top-notch for a new release. The atmosphere and score comes through nicely in the rear channels. The punches and kicks all come through clear... and, oh yeah, so does the dialogue. In addition to an English subtitle track for the foreign-language portions of the film, there are English SDH and Spanish subtitles tracks.
- Commentary by director/star Keanu Reeves and star Tiger Chen: Like many of characters he has played, on this commentary Keanu Reeves comes across as a man of few words. There are long sleepy stretches where the two just watch the film, although they seem to perk up once the first major fight scene occurs. There a few good tidbits, and it can be amusing to hear Reeves intone isolated random phrases like a trailer announcer, such as, "The offer!" and "Tiger can't hear what she's trying to tell him." However, unless you are a superfan of the film, the track is pretty skippable.
- The Making of Man of Tai Chi (7:52, HD) - A nicely made EPK, based mostly around an interview with Keanu Reeves, where he discusses the origins of the film in Tiger Chen's own training background and its 6-year journey to the screen. He jokes about dealing with himself as a director, and praises his collaborators including Tiger, cinematographer Elliot Davis, and action director Yuen Woo Ping.
- Promotional trailers for The Grandmaster, Only God Forgives and Dragon (Wu Xia).
Well, it's certainly not Oscar material. But being a much better made effort than you'd expect for something that never played a wide theatrical release, Man of Tai Chi is a crowdpleaser for fans of kung fu movies. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his random movie thoughts on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bottomofqueue