Distributor: Universal Pictures/China Film Group/RADiUS-TWC
Director: Keanu Reeves
Writer: Michael G. Cooney
Composer: Chan Kwong-wing
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen, Iko Uwais, Karen Mok, Simon Yam
What if I told you that Keanu Reeves had directed a movie? What if I told you it was a semi-biographical martial arts film about one of Reeve’s stunt coordinators from The Matrix? Like me, if you’re a fan of Keanu Reeves you’d probably run out of your way to check it out immediately to see what on Earth this strange movie was. I recall first hearing about it in Fall 2013 and rushing out to rent a copy the moment I had an opportunity. What I found then was a small scale, if highly personal, movie much in the style of 2011’s The Raid: Redemption.
Violence/Scary Images: Several individuals have their necks broken, characters get in violent martial arts fights, a character is stabbed. Blood is depicted.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild language including h*** and d***.
Sexual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Themes of vengeance, chaos, and profiteering.
Positive Content: Themes of pacifism, justice, and preserving life.
It’s been a few years since I indulged in Man of Tai Chi but recent events have turned Keanu Reeves into one of the most in-demand stars alive. Just this summer he starred in three seperate films: John Wick Ch.3, Won’t You Be My Maybe, and Toy Story 4. He was announced as a lead character in the highly anticipated video game Cyberpunk 2077. Also, he made the talk show circuit and gave some wonderful interviews that propelled him into the spotlight for months.
Not since the first Matrix film has this star been so omnipresent. Even his resurgence with the first John Wick film (which his directorial debut beat to theaters by a year) didn’t bring the guy to the public’s attention the way the past few months has. All through this summer Man of Tai Chi has been one of the his movies I’d most wanted to go back and rewatch out of nostalgia in the midst of this massive career resurgence (alongside The Matrix and Much Ado About Nothing).
The story follows the real life actor Tiger Chen in a highly fictionalized imagining of his life prior to moving to Hollywood. In real life Chen trained in Tai Chi before moving to the United States, signing up to assist in The Matrix and meeting Keanu on the job. In the film’s version of events, Chen is a Tai Chi student with a dark streak who wants to start competing in matches against the will of his pacifist master whose dojo is falling into a state of disrepair.
Struggling with money and desiring a place where he can express himself as he wishes, Chen falls into the sights of a mysterious booker looking to set up closed-circuit ultra-violent martial arts death matches for mysterious rich benefactors. As a result of accepting a series of fights with extremely talent martial artists, Chen is drawn down a path of violence and success that threatens to consume him and perminantly estrange him from his master.
The story is extremely on the nose and blunt in its Taoist symbolism. In screenwriting, a character’s central conflict is always expressed in the space between what a character wants and what they need. In this film, Tiger Chen’s conflict is almost entirely literal and written into the text. From the earliest conversation with his master, the dichotomy of his desire to express himself through violence and his need to embrace pacifism is spelled out in the conflict.
The plot is mostly just an excuse for him to slowly learn the lesson his master lays out for him in the beginning. The story plays out this literally in the colors of the clothing characters wear in different scenes, with good characters wearing white and bad characters wearing black similar to hats in classic Western films or the outfits in Star Wars with the Jedi and Sith. The symbolism also has a secondary effect of expressing the visual motif of the Ying-Yang symbol which appears at mulitple points.
That might sound overly simplicistic but it’s the plot of an action movie and this genre benefits from clear stakes and motivations. Man of Tai Chi‘s best strength is its brief but consistently excellent action scenes between Tiger Chen and various other opponents that Keanu Reeve’s character lines up for him to fight with one on one. Unfortunately these fights, while making up a solid amount of the runtime, come off as brief so this deliberaly sparse plot tends to come off as overly story-focused unlike The Raid which lets its simple story setup give way to non-stop action setpieces. Granted that story isn’t bad. To be fair, the scenes we do get with action are legitimately masterful. Chen is an intensely talented martial artist and the scenes he pulls off are phenomenal and worth the price of admission alone.
As a whole, though, the movie mostly lets itself glide on basics to keep it functional enough for the best moments to work. It goes back to Howard Hawk’s famous saying, “Three good scenes and no bad scenes.” Granted if we take that to be true then Man of Tai Chi has a fair share of scenes that would disqualify it. The worst element is oddly Keanu Reeves. I’ve never seen one of his performances this stilted and one-note.
Seeing him play an outright antagonist is fun but there’s no core to his character. He’s a bad guy just doing his job curating death matches for entertainment. He has no layers or motivation. Anything that might’ve benefited from his unique charasima is lost on the fact that his acting is abysmal here. Tiger Chen and most of the side cast turn in passible performances but nothing spectacular. Beyond just those problems the majory of the movie feels rather bare bones, sparse, and visually generic.
Truthfully there are plenty of ways I could critique this if I wanted to be mean. Compared to exceptional Chinese films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, Shadow, and Ip Man, Man of Tai Chi hardly ranks as one of the most visually dynamic, expressive, or interesting films in its genre. It lack’s epic scope, pristine production design, and high melodrama. In some ways the film is more of a novelty than something original. At the same time though I’d never want to be cruel to this work because it delivers.
The novelty of “Directed by Keanu Reeves” may sell but it’s a movie you’ll want to stay for the intensely choreographed action scenes and it’s solid central story for Tiger Chen. The fact that Keanu Reeves would go out of his way to make a movie for his friend is heartwarming and the work they put into making his immense talents as a martial artist shine make the fighting scenes more than worth the rental price. It’s the kind of thing that’s worth supporting because you love that it exists more than whether or not you think it’s stuck the landing or not. After six years it still warms my heart. It cuts to the very core of why we love Keanu Reeves in the first place. He is, afterall, breathtaking.
The Bottom Line