Since wrapping up The Matrix movies in 2003, Keanu Reeves has avoided anything to do with the martial arts. But with directorial debut, Man Of Tai Chi, and the upcoming 47 Ronin (out December 25), the once and future Ted “Theodore” Logan returns to movies in which he gets to kick people in the face.
Though in Man Of Tai Chi, he doesn’t do it all that much. Instead, he plays a businessman in China who runs an underground fight club. After his latest recruit fails to live up to expectations, Reeves covertly enlists a student of tai chi named Tiger (Chen Lin-Hu) who works as a courier, studies tai chi in a run-down temple, and hopes to marry his girlfriend. Trying to complicate matters, but failing miserably, is Suen Jing-Si (Karen Mok from Shaolin Soccer), a cop who knows Reeves’ character is up to no good, but can’t prove it.
Not surprisingly, there are a number of connections between Man Of Tai Chi and The Matrix movies. Not only were Man’s fights choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who performed the same duties on The Matrix and its sequels, but Lin-Hu worked with Woo-ping on The Matrix, teaching Reeves and his co-stars how to do martial arts.
Story-wise, Man Of Tai Chi is somewhat predictable, with Tiger’s success — and the money that comes with it — naturally going to his head. By the time things do take a bit of a turn, it’s so subtle and so late in the film that it hardly matters.
Yet while we know how this will all play out, it’s still a fairly decent ride. The fight scenes, though sometimes too long, are invigorating, in part because they keep the crazy leaps and wire work to a minimum. And this might seem weird, but watching two people go at it in a martial arts competition actually seems unique here, if only because, in these kinds of movies, people usually don’t fight in competitions. Well, unless their kids doing karate.
It’s also interesting to watch Reeves’ character manipulate Tiger so cleanly, even if it does make Reeves seem like he’s got the kind of money and influence normally reserved for the villain in a James Bond movie.
As for Reeves’ direction, Man Of Tai Chi is a good looking movie, beautifully shot. It also, for the most part, stays away from the abundance of bad slo-mo that so many directors use these days as a crutch.
But Reeves has a ways to go before he’ll be considered as fine an actor/director as Clint Eastwood. Or George Clooney. Or even Mel Gibson (before he went all nutty). For one thing, some moments that were supposed to be strong, and would’ve in someone else’s hands, came off as silly. The biggest of which, oddly, comes when Reeves yells at the screen for some reason. Which kind of fits his character’s over-the-top persona, but then that was a problem as well.
The music was also overbearing and obvious, while a couple of the transitions from one scene to another — especially this one towards the end — seemed amateurish.
As for the inevitable question of whether to watch this on demand (which you can do beginning this Friday, September 27) or wait and see it on a big screen (starting November 1), the answer is that while you can really go either way, there is one technical issue that might makes this better to watch at home. Because half of the dialog is in Chinese, there’s a lot of subtitles. But because the subtitles are in white text, and are often against a picture that’s light or white, it’s sometimes impossible to read them. Granted, I don’t know if they’ll be easier to see on your TV but, at the very least, you’ll be able to pause and try to figure them out, something you can’t do in theaters.
Either way, though, Man Of Tai Chi may not kick as much ass, literally or figuratively, as The Matrix, but what ass it does kick is done in an interesting way, especially if you’re okay watching Keanu Reeves manipulate some goober into kicking ass on his behalf.