Man of Tai Chi
For his directorial debut, Keanu Reeves crafts an exquisitely entertaining martial arts picture aimed at the international market. Reeves is clearly playing to Asian audiences. Punched up with self-mocking sequences of camp humor involving Reeves’s megalomaniacal character Donaka Mark, the cleverly clichéd story — by music-composer-turned-screenwriter Michael G. Cooney — is droll to begin with.
Martian-arts master Tiger Hu Chen plays Chen Lin-Hu, an impoverished Tai Chi practitioner whose master (Yu Hai) is about to have his humble temple impounded. An underground fight circuit — operated by Donaka Mark — discovers Lin-Hu’s fighting skills, and auditions him through a series of private mano y mano battles with fighters from other martial-arts disciplines. Although it’s counterintuitive that a tai-chi fighter could defeat mixed martial arts masters, Lin-Hu wastes no time working his way to the top of Mark’s illegal fight club circuit in brilliantly choreographed fight sequences that are as brutal as they are visually lush. The level of pure athleticism on display is astounding. These are fight sequences you can sink your teeth into.
“Man of Tai Chi” is clearly a labor of love from Keanu Reeves, whose friendship with the Sichuan native Chen Lin-Hu formed the basis for the movie. With its simple narrative trappings, the bare-bones storyline allows for a feel-good martial arts movie concerned with celebrating the jaw-dropping spectacle that highly skilled martial artists from various disciplines can provide. So while Chen Lin-Hu doesn’t carry the magnetism of a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan, his talents receive a proper context in a popcorn movie that works like a charm.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)