For his directorial debut, Keanu Reeves chooses the somewhat bizarre choice of a martial arts tournament flick, similar to Enter The Dragon or Bloodsport, shot almost entirely on location in Hong Kong and Beijing. Reeves takes for himself the role of the villain, Donaka Mark, orchestrator of an underground martial arts betting syndicate. Reeves gifts the lead in his film to the unknown Tiger Chen Hu, part of Yuen Wo Ping’s stunt team with whom Reeves worked on The Matrix. Chen plays a Tai Chi student who reluctantly joins Mark’s fight club to raise the necessary funds to save his kung fu temple, only to soon find himself out of his depth.
Chen is clearly a highly experienced martial artist and stuntman but lacks a certain onscreen charisma to really see Man of Tai Chi be a breakout role for him. Reeves goes all-out as the villain, but in doing so exposes his own acting limitations, failing to bring the necessary gravitas or threat to his role. Karen Mok fares much better as the feisty Hong Kong cop investigating the deaths from Mark’s fights, while Simon Yam also makes a brief cameo as Mok’s senior officer. Viewers will also spot The Raid‘s Iko Uwais as one of the other contenders, but he feels somewhat wasted considering what we have seen him do under Gareth Evans’ direction.
While Man of Tai Chi is something of an underwhelming oddity, it is not without its charms, and ticks enough boxes to warrant a Friday night rental accompanied by a pizza and a few beers – which is all many films of this nature have ever warranted. It’s just bizarre that Reeves would go to all the effort of spending the best part of a year in China making a film that is ultimately so unremarkable in its intentions.
That said, what Reeves and the film do manage to achieve is to create a wonderful sense of place, both in Hong Kong and in Beijing. Perhaps this will go unnoticed by the vast majority of the film’s eventual audience (it opened first in China, where it made little impact), but he rather brilliantly captures and accentuates the different environments of the two cities, so we always know where we are and how they differ.
There were a number of films at Fantastic Fest this year – including Man of Tai Chi, Grand Piano and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno among others – that feel like a deliberate retreat back to basics, shying away from high concept big budget narratives, or more meaningful character-based dramas to deliver old fashion genre thrills reminiscent of fare from decades past. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of approach to filmmaking, I just hoped there would be something more going on in Man of Tai Chi than just a man doing tai chi.