Review: Man of Tai Chi

Copyright: Universal Pictures
To call this movie “action packed” is a grave understatement. Man of Tai Chi is a martial arts movie through and through. It's precisely managed, and it doesn't digress towards a broader action film involving shootouts or any other standard action hallmarks.

The movie is Keanu Reeves's directorial debut. In front of the camera Reeves plays the main villain, a ruthless security agency owner named Donaka Mark. Apart from his day job, Mark is also running an underground fighting operation in Hong Kong. One day while he scouts for new fighters he notices Tiger Chen, a talented Tai Chi practitioner. Mark, intrigued by Tiger's unorthodox use of the ancient martial art, invites him to a meeting. Tiger, an honest and gentle young man, gradually gets drawn into Mark's dark world of money and violence.

The way Reeves used and presented contemporary China impressed me the most. Man of Tai Chi blends time-worn temples and modern skylines, dotted with giant office buildings. In spite of the fact that he is a first time director he didn't shy away from a cinematography that feels introspective and subdued, even though he aimed for an action film.

He had the liberty to do this because all the action is focused in the fight scenes. The large majority of these scenes are superbly choreographed. The team that worked on them  deserves a lot of credit. Every match that befalls Tiger is authentic and tightly compacted, no matter how long it lasts. Added bonus is the fact that choreographers didn't follow any clear pattern. That's why the fights remain entertaining and intriguing; some lasts seconds, while other go on for five or more minutes.

It's also worthy to register the absence of stuntmen flying on wires and similar fantasy elements that became frequent in Chinese action films. Although the movie does contain a small amount of kung-fu magic (let’s call it that), The Man of Tai Chi is strongly based in present day China.

The movie goes through all the regular motions that follow a thriller-like film (a renegade cop on the case that's supposed to be closed, slowly working her way towards Mark's criminal empire) but Reeves doesn't overplay this side of the story. Tiger's journey is the clear narrative anchor, and this remains constant until the end.

It can be argued that because of its simple plot and cheesy editing from the early days of Hong Kong martial arts films (camera zooms on the angry faces and stuff like that) it could be possible to compare Man of Tai Chi to a movie like American Samurai. Thanks to a top-notch choreography and Reeves's solid, compact directing this film is entertaining without being suitable only for boys in early teenage years who recently started practicing karate.

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