Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Man of Tai Chi

Directed by Keanu Reeves.
2013. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Tiger Hu Chen
Karen Mok
Yu Hai
Simon Yam
Sam Lee
Ye Qing
Michael Tong

If you're familiar with Tai Chi then you know it's the one style of martial arts you never hear about anyone actually using in a fight. It's much more of a spiritual, meditative endeavor. You may have seen elderly people practicing it in the park using slow, sweeping, and graceful motions that scream peace. Tiger Chen (Chen) wants to show the world that Tai Chi can indeed be used in combat. To accomplish this he enters a televised martial arts competition. After winning his first bout, he catches the eye of Donaka Mark (Reeves). By this time, we know what Tiger has yet to learn. Donaka runs a very lucrative and ruthless underground fight club. How ruthless? He kills fighters who show mercy and the poor sap they've shown it to. Lots of kung fu fightin' ensues while the cops try to shut down the operation. This is said to be inspired by Chen's actual life. Um...okay.

The draw here is obviously the martial arts acton. First time director Keanu Reeves wisely reunites with legendary fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen. The two worked together on The Matrix trilogy. Here, the characters are more tightly bound to the laws of physics so Yuen doesn't have quite as much freedom as when he was choreographing showdowns between Neo and Agent Smith. Still, he delivers the goods. The added layer of realism makes this set of fights a bit more visceral. We feel a little closer to the action. That's not say these guys don't perform a few impossible acts because they do with the aid of a few instances of wire work. It's just not enough to really subtract from our enjoyment.

As the guy we're most often watching, Tiger Chen proves himself to be a capable on-screen martial artist. Many of the guys he fights are faceless opponents, but represent various styles and help keep things interesting. As an actor, he isn't too bad. He does a decent job conveying the changes his character is going through. However, it's Yu Hai as Chen's teacher, Master Yang, who is the real standout. He gives us a classic wise old kung fu sage through a nice mix of nuanced performing and fortune cookie dialogue. Truthfully, lots of the dialogue in this movie qualifies as fortune cookie worthy. Hai makes it work better than anyone else.

The rest of the cast is pretty bad. Sadly, but not surprisingly, this includes Keanu Reeves as our villain. As a bad guy, he's more laughable than menacing. This is largely due to his unchanging facial expression and the fact that every word he utters feels forced and completely lacking the charisma need for an effective antagonist. Yes, I count The Matrix among my very favorite movies of all time. However, it still baffles me that he is the star. Even more perplexing is the fact that he was once a highly sought after and highly bankable actor. Seriously, we're talking about a guy whose best work was in the Bill & Ted movies.

In the director's chair, Reeves fares much better. Don't get me wrong, he's no Ben Affleck, another guy who became a star despite questionable acting ability and has stepped behind the camera. Man of Tai Chi is no Gone Baby Gone, The Town, or Argo, and thus, won't be competing for any Oscars. That said, it's a solidly crafted martial arts movie with a leading man we like. He also has a personal conflict that's easy to get behind. Therefore, even though it isn't great, those two things combine with the action to not only make it highly watchable, but re-watchable and likely a favorite of boys of all ages who are into kung fu flicks.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

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