A young martial artist's unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.
With much fanfare last year, self-confessed martial arts buff RZA made his directing debut with The Man with the Iron Fists as a way of doffing his baseball cap to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studios. We all know how that turned out"¦
Reeves wisely makes sure that the action is right
So who would have thought that in his first time out as director, Keanu Reeves would hit much closer to home with Man of Tai Chi?
Shot in Beijing and Hong Kong with involvement from The China Film Group, Village Roadshow Asia and Universal Studios, the film has the bucks and the bureaucracy behind it as an official co-production. But it takes more than locations to get a film to work.
Engaging his mates from his Matrix days, Tiger Hu Chen and Yuen Woo-ping, Reeves wisely makes sure that the action is right. With Yuen directing action and stuntman Chen as the star, the film’s fight sequences are well staged and (mostly) feel authentic. Reeves alternates between wide shots that clearly show both combatants and tighter shots that get in close but still allow the full flow of all the fighting manoeuvres to be plainly visible. There’s some genre standard trickery of course like a dash of well-disguised wire work, but on the whole it’s effectively presented and energetic enough to keep audiences attentive.
As well as directing, Reeves plays the Hong Kong-based bad guy Donaka who runs an international underground fight network for the viewing pleasure of rich customers. Looking for a new champion, he locks on Beijing tai chi student and bike courier, Tiger Chen (played by Tiger Hu Chen just so there’s no confusion). As the script is at pains to reinforce, tai chi is mostly a physical form of meditation rather than a fighting art. However, when Beijing property developers threaten to demolish the temple at which Chen studies with his master (Yu Hai), the apt pupil uses Donaka’s offer of employment to quickly raise the needed cash to save the temple from demolition.
What Chen’s master fears (and what Donaka is counting on) is that Chen’s blood lust will be aroused by the violent contests and his tai chi discipline will be corrupted in the process. Written by video game scriptwriter Michael G. Cooney, the story is simple, but it never loses faith with its spiritual centre or the martial arts films of yore that first introduced kung fu to Westerners back in the 1970s. A subplot involving a Hong Kong cop (Karen Mok) who is determined to bust the underground fighting ring and her cynical superior officer (Simon Yam) adds genuine excitement to proceedings.
Chen is no Bruce Lee (who is?); nor is the film as flashy with its physical combat as some might wish, but it’s consistently of a high and entertaining standard"¦ until the climactic battle in which Keanu himself appears. Here Reeves – a martial arts hobbyist – exposes himself as a novice amongst masters. An obvious reliance on a speeded up camera, further undermines the big finale.
But a bonus for people who watch movies all the way through, is the end credits backdropped with a simple, slow-moving pan across Beijing’s shamelessly polluted morning skyline. Who knows why this meditative shot is here, but it provides a poetic postscript to a respectable martial arts movie that keeps faith with tai chi’s spiritual focus.