Everything about “Man of Tai Chi” is awesome. Not awesome in the way you’re familiar, but awesome in the way Stephanie Zacharek described in her delightful review of “Inception” a couple of years back. “We've entered an era where movies can no longer be great,” she said, describing Christopher Nolan’s silly funhouse mirror adventure film, “They can only be awesome, which is not nearly the same thing.” She was right, and who better than to ignore the ramifications of that quote than the star of “The Matrix” himself, Keanu Reeves, here making his directorial debut?
This exceptionally gorgeous and exceptionally silly martial arts film follows workaday courier Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen), a slinky, shaggy-haired blank who peddles packages by day, training in the art of Tai Chi in his off-time. For those of you lazy bums who do not know, tai chi is considered more of a performing art than a legit fighting style, more decorative and symbolic than practical. As such, Chen’s master forbids him from profiting off his skill, instead using his talents to locate his inner chi. If you’ve seen one of these movies, however, you know that he’s going to have to start beating up fools soon. No one ever makes a martial arts film where the hero finds strength in not owning fools.
Into the picture walks Donaka Mark (Reeves), who runs an underground fighting tournament where combatants fight to the death. If they don’t provide a finishing move to their rival (one of the film’s first lines is a voice bellowing, “FINISH HIM!”), a masked man emerges from the shadows and snaps the man’s neck, the winning fighter disposed backstage. Mercy has no place in this competition, which seems to be breeding bruisers for the sole purpose of eventually turning them into corpses. Reeves, to his credit, is a riot: his line readings are like that of a mad anime villain, blocky and awkward. Reeves’ direction charmingly frames his dialogue as if it were jumping off the screen. When a cell phone rings and a desperate, penny-pinching Chen asks for a match, Donaka’s mouth barks, in close-up, “Then a fight you will get!”
There’s something a bit old-fashioned to the film’s twists, which are based in obvious genre tropes. Chen is not the most compelling dramatic performer, but we still need to spend time with him in the dark as he attempts to figure out why this shady “security company” wants to see him fight. Soon, he’s shedding any pretense of honoring his craft, using it in ruthless closed-circuit battles while Donaka Mark watches on, with his pained, affected scowl. If nothing, this film’s reaction shots will provide the Internet with enough gifs for years.
The fighting, choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, is predictably fantastic. Reeves cuts around a few sequences, unfortunately, but for the most part he captures the fights in a way that emphasizes the physicality of the performers and respects the history of martial arts cinema. There could be more diversity in the settings: a number of fights occur in the same claustrophobic room, and the geography isn’t deceptive enough to hide when a third figure appears in the room as if he walked through a wall. The sameyness strikes again with a subplot involving a hardboiled cop (Karen Mok) and her bureaucratic battles with an uninterested boss (Simon Yam) going back and forth in the police department over whether this fighting tournament is tied to a series of disappearances. Reeves finds enough coverage to keep things from getting boring, but there’s an awful lot of point-A-to-point-B storytelling sandwiched in between battles.
At least there are the fights themselves. The film builds to seeing Reeves in action, and sadly he moves very much like you’d expect for a late 40s American movie star. His fighting isn’t bad, and his physical menace still considerable, but it pales next to the widescreen brawls between trained professionals that make up the bulk of the film’s runtime. Reeves’ film combines both an eastern understanding for the martial arts and a westerner’s eye for composition and editing. This is likely what Reeves’ intended, and the film’s goals are modest. It’s the meandering drama that inflates the bloat of the narrative. Reeves accompanies every obvious plot twist with dramatic crane shots and blaring horns on the soundtrack, as if he were in charge of editing a trailer, not putting together a full movie. It wants to be awesome, but instead it’s just “awesome.” [C]