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.