Directed by: Keanu Reeves
Lineage in Martial Arts is important. If you’re a black belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu for example, then that black belt means more if you can trace it back to the Gracie Family. Tiger Chen, star of ‘Man of Tai Chi’ is a protégé of the world renowned Martial Arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, a legend in the Martial Arts world who was behind the set-pieces of some of Jackie Chan’s early work, films like ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ and ‘Drunken Master’. Woo-ping would later work on genre defining movies like ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘The Matrix’, which is probably how Tiger Chen crossed paths with Keanu Reeves.
Tiger Chen was given a starring role by Keanu Reeves, in ‘Man of Tai Chi’, Reeves first directorial effort. Chen plays an awkward courier who trains in Tai Chi under the wise Master Yang. Chen is a little frustrated by the passivity of Tai Chi, a Martial Art which traditionally has been viewed as more akin to spirituality and meditation than spinning kicks and rapid fire punches. In many ways Tai Chi is a cousin to Capoeira, the Brazilian Martial Art, in that it appears more for show as opposed to an effective form of self-defence. I remember a few years ago when I was practicing Wing Chun, a traditional Martial Art, that occasionally we would dabble in Tai Chi, only the very basics I might add, but what I noticed was that it was a great way of staying calm, moving freely and controlling energy. There was certainly something mystical about Tai Chi.
Anyway, Chen enters in a local Martial Arts tournament and represents the new generation of Tai Chi. Master Yang doubts Chen and believes him to be ill-disciplined and weak minded, he also doesn’t want Tai Chi to be dishonoured in crude fights. Chen convincingly wins his first round tournament contest and is head hunted by Donaka Mark (Reeves), the wealthy head of a private Hong Kong Security Firm. Mark waves a fistful of dollars at Chen and Chen signs up to sign up for an underground fighting tournament which is beamed out to a worldwide pay per view audience. Chen racks up the wins and makes plenty of money, but begins to lose his soul and integrity.
‘Man of Tai Chi’ is odd in some ways, because it is a unique English and Chinese effort. Basically whenever Reeves is on screen everybody speaks English, and when Tiger Chen is running about everyone speaks Chinese. At first this is a little annoying, and I say this as somebody who loves reading subtitles, but eventually you get used to it.
Reeves as director serves up a classic underdog story, the tournament form of the film brings this video game quality to the movie. The side story involving a plucky Hong Kong detective investigating Donaka Mark perhaps seems a little unnecessary, but it doesn’t detract so much from what is ultimately a vehicle for the Martial Arts talent of Tiger Chen.