Friday, November 1, 2013

"Man Of Tai Chi" Review: Keanu Reeves' Directorial Debut Is A Whole Lot Of Fun Hard Hitting Martial Arts Action


It took 5 long years for Man of Tai Chi to come to fruition. Directed and starring Keanu Reeves, featuring his long time friend and stunt man Tiger Hu Chen in the lead role and combining a mixture of oldschool and new age filmmaking philosphies, this is clearly a passion project for all those involved. How did Reeves' Martial Arts epic turn out?  Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Format:  Xbox Video        
Film Rating: R     
Film Runtime: 1 hr 45 min   
Studio: Universal Pictures

Biases:  
Loves: Martial Arts films
Likes: Keanu Reeves, foreign films that represent a different culture
Neutral: The film's overly familiar structure
Hates: Nothing
Tiger Chen served as a stunt man: On all three Matrix films with Keanu Reeves


Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen) is a man of peace and innocence who practices the art of Tai Chi, a style of Martial Arts that focuses on defensive forms. Tiger wants to prove to the world that there is also power in the use of Tai Chi, so when  he is approached by the mysterious Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) to be a part of his private fighting tournament, he seizes the chance despite the dishonor he will bring to himself and his master by doing so.  As he fights is way through a series of underground tournaments, he begins to discover that not only is he getting stronger, but there is also something more going on in the background of Donaka's elaborate Martial Arts showcase.

Keanu Reeves has long been mocked and lampooned for nearly his entire career. While its true that his acting style isn't what some would call varied,  he has still forged a remarkable career by playing in a number of iconic films (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, The Matrix, Point Break and Speed) that has helped keep him in popular culture over the past three decades despite the negativity surrounding his particular acting "style".

Now he has taken on a new and more difficult challenge as both actor and director in the new film, Man of Tai Chi. After helming the fantastic 2012 documentary Side by Side, he set his sights on making his very first feature length film, but not just any film, he wanted to make a kick ass martial arts film. A daunting task for any seasoned filmmaker, but a nearly impossible feat for a first time director. Somehow though, Reeves pulled off a miracle here and delivered a fully competent, if a bit by the numbers, Martial Arts epic that in the end is just a lot of fun.


Starring his friend and martial arts stunt man Tiger Hu Chen, Reeves shows a clear understanding and love for the material at hand. Filming the action scenes with the help of legendary fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, there is a grace and flow to how the camera moves and captures each punch, kick and throw that allows the audience to not simply bear witness to the action, but also feel as though they are right there in the thick of it. There is an oldschool vibe to how the fight scenes are staged that fits the film quite well.

The core of the film surrounds the idea of a man (Tiger) who decides to use the art of Tai Chi as an offensive technique instead of for the more showy and meditative aspect behind the teachings of his master. This path of course catches the eye of Donaka Mark, a man who specializes in finding innocent men like Tiger and stripping them of said innocence in favor of discovering their darker side and harnessing their true potential by lavishing them with gifts, power and money. His objective is to basically take someone pure and break them in every way possible. You just don't get more evil than that.

Then there are some more than obvious parallels between this film and the Star Wars franchise. Trust me, it's not nearly as crazy as it sounds. Very similar themes are covered, such as an innocent man with dark powers brewing within him and two opposing father figures, one good and one bad, both pulling him in different directions where he must make an ultimate choice which will determine if he walks on the dark or light path. Seriously, its that blatant. There actually comes a point where when the more sinister and dark nature of Tiger begins to manifest itself and as a result he begins to wear darker clothing up until he eventually is completely clothed in black just like a Sith, where earlier he was wearing more Earth toned clothing just like a Jedi. None too subtle these comparisons are.


But that isn't what you want to see, right? You could care less about darksides, lightsides and everything in between. What you want is some hard hitting martial arts action and crazy ass stunts to get that adrenaline pumping, and the film comes through as a true champ in that regard. Tiger may be a relative newcomer when it comes to being in the lead role, but watching him take down his foes one after the other comes with a great ease and a great skill that no actor could hope to replicate. Watching him do his thing is never dull and always thrilling.

Each confrontation between Tiger and Donaka's seemingly endless barrage of fighters becomes increasingly more intense than the last. As we see the humanity being stripped away from Tiger, we also see his skills increase as his master's Tai Chi begins to meld into his own distinct style that threatens to overtake him completely, body and soul.  Rarely do we get a martial arts film that is able to blend its story with its action in a way that enhances both aspects exponentially as this. On the sidelines during Tiger's fury inside the ring is Keanu Reeves who is doing his best impression of a diabolical mastermind.

There is no doubt that Reeves had a lot of fun in his role as the film's antagonist. Usually relegated to the role of the hero or in some weird grey area where he is neither good nor bad, it was refreshing seeing him act out in such a deliciously evil manner. As an actor, Reeves still has that same monotone approach to his roles that has made him famous, but age has somehow made him seem much more dignified than he ever has before. His performance here won't change any minds about him, but there is no denying the fact that his traits as an actor are as appealing as ever here and seeing him ham it up like this was a real hoot.


The performance by Tiger Chen is likewise very strong...inside the ring, and also somewhat limited outside it. Near the end of the film is the only place where we begin to see signs of his limited range as a dramatic actor, but up until that point he makes for a more than adequate protagonist who provides plenty of amazing beat downs that you aren't soon to forget. You can expect to see Tiger in plenty of future martial arts films if his more than solid performance here is anything to go by.

Playing alongside Tiger's story, there is also a somewhat underdeveloped subplot involving an obsessed police officer (Karen Mok) chasing after Reeve's character who is looking to shut down his underground fighting operation for good. Her story never goes anywhere all that important or even interesting and could have been left out all together if not for the few times her story intersects with Tiger's. This problematic bit of filler is quickly forgiven and forgotten however when we cut back to the much more interesting Tiger and his continuing internal struggle being instigated by the evil Donaka.

In short, if you are expecting your typical martial arts action flick, think again.There is much more going on here than just a series of arena battles and a good versus evil plot. Tiger Hu Chen proves to be a more than capable leading man and is without equal when it comes to his talent in the martial arts world. Reeves also deserves credit for crafting not only a hard hitting action flick, but by adding some unexpected elements of humanity and a few welcomed surprises in the story that pop up near the end. If you are a martial arts film fan, there is no reason you shouldn't seek this one out immediately.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Keanu Reeves' directorial debut is quite possibly one of the greatest martial arts films from a Western filmmaker ever made. It's understanding of its subject matter along with the beauty and respect of its meanings combined with impressive fight sequences and the discovery of soon-to-be martial arts legend Tiger Hu Chen are enough to look past its well acted but cliche-ridden plot of good versus evil. Much like the often maligned Ben Affleck, Reeves could have a long and bright future behind the camera if the overall quality of his freshman effort is any indication. Suffice it to say, this film comes highly recommended.

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