“I know Kung Fu!”
-Neo, The Matrix
Released in November of 2013, Man of Tai Chi is a martial arts movie featuring Keanu Reeves as the main villain and also marks his directorial debut.
Yes, I willingly watched this movie. Clearly I have made some poor life choices.
Actually, let me get this out of the way right now. I am not a Keanu hater. I do not think he is a bad actor. He’s not brilliant and has done some bad movies, but I have enjoyed many of his films and I’m more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt than write him off. Keanu also seems to have a genuine personal appreciation for genre films, which I greatly appreciate.
Add to this that I am a devotee of martial arts films, especially of the low budget Hong Kong variety. I love the Shaw Brothers films. I love films with Bruce Lee, Bruce Li, Bruce Le, or Dragon Lee. I hosted a movie night where we went to the local video store and rented every movie with Shaolin in the title, and one called Bandits, Prostitutes, and Silver.
Given all this, I went into Man of Tai Chi with more than a little hope, and initially it looked like those hopes would be justified.
This movie has all the elements of a great kick flick. Hu Chen plays Tiger Chen Lin-Hu, the Man of Tai Chi, a young and idealistic but troubled hero. Yu Hai plays his wise and aging master, trying to temper his student’s passions and pass on the secrets of his style. Karen Mok plays Sun Jing Shi, the Hong Kong detective who is a cop-on-the-edge obsessed with shutting down the illegal pit fighting ring that has killed so many fighters. Keanu Reeves plays Donaka Mark, the emotionless, two-dimensional villain who runs the ring.
The story is a classic. Chen is a good young man torn between the peaceful nature of Tai Chi and his desire to prove the style’s power, and his own martial prowess, to the world. Donaka Mark runs an illegal pit fighting ring that caters to an exclusive clientele, offering more than just death sports. Using a network of hidden cameras, Donaka gives his viewers a voyeuristic look into every aspect of his fighters’ lives. It’s about more than just pit fighting, it’s a reality show about man’s descent into darkness. Donaka recruits Chen into his stable of fighters, engineering situations that push Chen deeper and deeper into his web of violence. All the time detective Sun Jing Shi is dogging Donaka’s trail, despite the fact that her chief has closed the case.
The story is solid and all the actors save Reeves turn in stellar performances. From the main leads to the minor figures, you feel for these characters. Tiger’s descent into the dark side is well portrayed and the relationship between him and his master is heartfelt. Reeves is the weakest link in the performances. His lack of emotion feels surprisingly forced and when Donaka’s composure does slip, it’s comically overdone. There were times I wondered if Reeves was taking lessons from the Nicholas Cage school of over-acting.
Beyond story and acting, the core of a martial arts film is the fighting, and Man of Tai Chi does not disappoint… at least not right away.
The initial fights are excellent. The scenes are fast paced and the cinematography is good. There is a fight between Tiger Chen and his master that is absolutely delightful to watch. I was particularly pleased with the use of wirework. How much or how little you use wirework helps define the atmosphere of the movie. Here they used just enough to accentuate the fights and avoided giving it center stage, a judicious use that I’m not used to seeing.
There’s very little camera motion and while they don’t use long shots, they don’t zoom in on the fight too closely either. I have some major complaints with how Hollywood films action scenes. Tight shots on fight scenes tell me that the actors can’t perform and I abhor shakey cam. These techniques are not immerse, they destroy our ability to see and enjoy the fight scenes. I was happy not to see them evident early in the film.
It’s about half way through the movie that things go off the rails. There is an important fight scene where Tiger Chen is forced to fight two opponents and it is virtually unwatchable. Suddenly the camera work is tight on the action. While they don’t succumb to shakey cam syndrome, they do start using lots of rapid cuts between shots. Worst of all is the lighting, which includes moments when a flood light is pointed straight at the camera and other points when they use a strobe light.
If the goal was to make this scene more immersive, then they succeeded. I felt confused, disoriented, nauseated, frustrated, and upset. If the goal was to invest me in the story and entertain me, it was an utter failure.
The rest of the movie continues this nose dive into mediocrity and disappointment. There are still good moments and particularly the continuation of Detective Jing Shi’s story arc is well handled. But the overall quality of the film continues to degrade as it is taken over by the Hollywood tropes I’ve come to dislike. It all comes to a head in the nonsensical showdown between Chen and Donaka, which is poorly filmed and paced and has the least interesting choreography in any of the fights.
Man of Tai Chi takes an interesting story and good performances and runs them into the ground. This is what keeps it from being either a good film or an endearingly bad movie.