Actors taking a turn in the directing chair is something I’ve always found interesting, because while it can often yield unexpected results, it can also wind up as a train wreck of vanity and indulgence, and who doesn’t love one of those, am I right? But when the actor-turned director in question is Keanu Goddamn Reeves of all people, the man whose onscreen persona could easily be imitated by a three-toed sloth with a javelin lodged in its brain, you can bet your internal hemorrhages I’ll be watching it.
As opposed to a stirring documentary about what it’s like to live one’s entire life on cold medication, Reeve’s directorial debut is Man of Tai Chi, a martial arts film and star vehicle for stuntman and actor-come-lately Tiger Chen, who Reeves met back on the set of the Matrix trilogy and struck up a friendship with.
As much as the film is essentially a demo-reel for Chen, there’s also a fair bit of lip-service to kung-fu movies of earlier eras, right down to things like how Tiger Chen just goes by his own name in the movie, something you’d see in early Jackie Chan films or other star vehicles attempting to make the name recognizable.
Chen plays a student of Tai-Chi, a martial art mostly only used for exhibition and exercise, who wants to bring more attention to his style and prove that it can be used for combat, much to the dismay of his master. An opportunity comes when Chen is contacted by Reeves’ Mark Donaka, your typical super-rich guy running an underground fighting tournament seemingly for shits and giggles, who hires Chen to participate in full-contact bouts for big wads of cash. But as the bouts go on, Tiger turns his back on the pacifist teachings of his master and becomes seduced by money and bloodlust and loses sight of the philosophies of the very art he practices.
Even beyond the fighting tournament premise, Man of Tai Chi is clearly meant at least partially as a tribute to the martial arts flicks of yesteryear. At one point there’s a dramatic zoom-in on the combatants’ faces in a shot straight out of a Shaw Brothers movie, the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping is brought in to choreograph the fight scenes, and the film indulges in a few things most contemporary-set martial arts flicks seem to be shying away from these days, like wirework and mystical techniques that allow you to liquify your opponent’s internal organs by thrusting your palm in their direction like you’re very vigorously turning back a bad sandwich at a deli.
For the most part, this works, and makes the film feel like something unique in the current climate of modern martial arts flicks, which are increasingly turning towards the kind of hard action and “realistic” fight scenes of something like The Raid. And while this would have worked beautifully, and set my kung-fu movie fan pants alight in flame, if the fight scenes had been shot in a more classical style, Reeves chooses to go a more modern route and often films things a little too shaky and a little too close, often making Wo-Ping’s choreography difficult to follow.
One fight scene is even lit in a blaze of flashing strobe lights for a bit. A move somewhere along the lines of setting a perfectly good dance scene to the sound the Hypnotoad makes.
The first few fight sequences are actually pretty good, but as the film progresses the camera seems to become shakier and less controlled, like the cinematographer was doing tequila shots the whole time through.
And speaking of The Raid, star Iko Uwais makes a surprise appearance towards the end as a final contestant, but fans looking for a brutal Tai-Chi vs. Silat fight scene will be disappointed.
The other major problem that occasionally rears its head to spoil the fun like reality intruding on a Calvin and Hobbes comic is that the film is edited terribly. There’s one scene early on where the inevitable spunky female policewoman who’s trying to blow the lid open on Reeves’ shenanigans is having a conversation with her boss, and it’s like Reeves filmed the thing from every conceivable angle and can’t decide which one he likes the best, and flits between angles like an excited child running back and forth down the toy aisle.
Scenes that should be restive and sedate are often given this manic energy by the rapid-fire editing. Thankfully this is only really a problem in a few scenes, however.
The soundtrack is also inconsistent and distracting, going back and forth between synth-y techno beats and orchestral numbers with a full choir, which again evokes the image of Reeves desperately trying to try as much stuff as he can and shooting the kneecaps of any sense of cohesion the film may have in the process.
As for Reeves’ actual performance, he does exactly what you’d expect: speak in a husky monotone, letting slip almost no emotion or character and coming across as less of a character and more of a personality-devoid cypher, which in layman’s terms means he’s boring as shit. He almost seems to try and combat this by shouting an incoherent bellow straight at the screen after a fight scene for no discernible reason, but it comes off as more comedic and out of place, and seems destined to become an animated gif.
Tiger Chen, for his part, does pretty well for his first outing as an actor, though it isn’t the most complex part ever. But he holds the screen well and shows a decent range of emotions. His fighting skills are definitely impressive and unique to watch, so we may well see more of him. It’s just a shame that as the film goes on the fights seem to become less and less impressive.
As debuts go, for both Reeves as a director and Tiger Chen as an action hero to North American audiences, Man of Tai Chi is inauspicious. Reeves manages to pull off enough winks and nods that fans of kung-fu classics will appreciate that it should offset problems like the editing and his own typically cardboard-y performance, and Tiger Chen shows enough promise as a headliner to make me want to see him in something else, possible with a more seasoned director at the helm.