There’s little in the way of drama, character depth or mise-en-scene to distract from Tiger Chen’s technically dazzling display of human combat in Keanu Reeves’ helming debut, “Man of Tai Chi.” As a vehicle for Hollywood action choreographer Chen to show off his prowess as a gullible tai-chi student lured into underground fight clubs, this China-U.S. co-production is the real deal for hardcore chopsocky fans, and will slot easily into genre ancillary. But Reeves’ workmanlike direction doesn’t boast enough style or originality for this actioner to significantly cross over to the mainstream.
With no confirmed date for a Stateside bow, the Beijing/Hong Kong-set pic premiered in China with only a 12.7% screen occupancy, facing stiff competition from the likes of the phenomenally successful teen drama “Tiny Times” and Johnnie To’s “Blind Detective.” Opening day B.O. produced a lame $872,000, half of what To’s action-comedy earned when it was released a day earlier.
The original idea for this project reportedly sprang from Reeves’ desire to pay tribute to his friend and trainer, Chen (aka Chen Hu). The Sichuan-born martial-arts champion is a protege of esteemed action director Yuen Woo-ping, and was largely responsible for the action choreography on “The Matrix” series, “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels,” among others. With Yuen taking the reins in “Man of Tai Chi,” Chen provides a thorough overview of martial-arts schools and combat techniques, but as an actor, he doesn’t possess Jet Li or Donnie Yen’s charisma. Similarly, the crew — consisting of American, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese collaborators — does professional work, but delivers neither the spectacle expected of a Hollywood blockbuster nor the quirky charm and kinetic energy of classic Hong Kong actioners.
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The theme and storyline are utterly generic — the corruption of a noble spirit by his thirst for winning. It begins with a scene of brutal man-to-man combat in a cell, where fighter Chi-tak (Jeremy Marinas) thrashes his opponent; when he refuses to “finish him off,” as ordered by an unseen game master, he is stabbed by a man (Reeves) in a mask. Led by Hong Kong police superintendent Suen Jing-si (Karen Mok), a SWAT team raids the premises but finds nothing. Jing-si appeals to her chief (Simon Yam) to help locate Chi-tak, who’s actually her mole, but the case is unceremoniously closed.
The masked man turns out to be Donaka Mark, a financial high roller from the U.S. who runs a covert fight club in Hong Kong. In search of a replacement for Chi-tak, he chances upon the TV broadcast of a Chinese national martial-arts championship. Chen Linhu (Chen), sole disciple of the Lingkong School of Tai Chi, impresses him not only with his innovative moves, but also his innocence. Although he holds a stressful, low-paid job as a courier in Beijing, Linhu declines the offer to compete in Donaka’s underground matches, deeming it dishonorable. However, when the temple guarded by his master (Yu Hai) faces demolition unless costly renovations are made, Donaka’s offer of quick cash suddenly becomes easy bait.
To the credit of Reeves and scribe Michael G. Cooney, the film respectfully avoids exoticism or oriental mysticism in its portrayal of its martial-arts milieu, only slipping in small, tolerable does of Taoist and Qigong philosophy. The fighting never feels repetitive as it alternates between proper Chinese kung fu and a fusion of no-holds-barred, MMA-inflected styles. With its rapid-fire, virtually nonstop mortal combat, the film recalls Gareth Evans’ Indonesia-set “The Raid: Redemption,” although “Man’s” less callous, more humanist approach toward violence is what will prevent it from achieving the same sort of cult success. (“The Raid” star Iko Uwais even makes a guest appearance here as Linhua’s opponent, but his role is squandered, as what should be the crowning showdown is cut short for a less exciting settling of the score with Donaka.)
Chen, who possesses extraordinary strength and agility, convincingly expresses his character’s loss of inner balance and growing bloodlust through body language, moving from the graceful formalism of tai chi to ugly, predatory moves as his opponents become more intimidating. The drawback is that lenser Elliot Davis’ stark framing and unswerving focus on the action tends to give short shrift to the identities and personalities of the other fighters.
Considering how basic the plot is, Derek Hui’s brisk editing keeps the story moving along smoothly enough, but the characters’ interactions are too superficial to engage. When he’s not kicking ass, Chen is wooden around the other thesps, and especially with the vacant Ye Qing as Linhu’s love interest. Only Yu’s sage countenance and dignified poise transcend the elementary martial-arts philosophy espoused here; a revered martial artist who had a memorable role in the seminal “Shaolin Temple” series that propelled Jet Li to stardom, he contributes some of the film’s most magnificent tai chi demonstrations.
As the demonic figure who brings out the dark side of Linhu, Reeves is stiff and expressionless, never really registering as a catalyst for the good-vs.-evil conflict that should have formed the film’s dramatic backbone. As the cop who uncovers Donaka’s nefarious dealings, Mok is given little to work with, but she still shows some spunk and agility when one least expects it.
Famed Nipponese production designer Yohei Taneda gives some of the sets a surreal look reminiscent of “The Matrix’s” cyberworld; others, such as the fighting arenas, remain minimalist and functional. Except for some panoramic shots of Hong Kong’s skylines at night, the city emerges with scant distinct color; by contrast, the Beijing locations feel more authentic, avoiding touristy sights in favor of congested highways and lived-in neighborhoods. The concussive score, mixing techno with Canto-rap and sometimes just blasts of noise, is in keeping with the bombast typical of so many Hong Kong composers. Other tech credits are pro.