Short Review: In Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, the actor shows he can feature stylized action and deliver a delightfully over-the-top performance as the film’s villain. The simplistic dialogue and ’80s action movie story take a back seat to the dynamic fight scenes and brilliant physical performance of Tiger Hu Chen. If you long for a sleek martial arts movie that aims to carry the torch of classics like Enter the Dragon and Kickboxer, then Man of Tai Chi is a solid, well choreographed blast of fist and foot.
Man of Tai Chi marks a return of classic Hong Kong cinema with its stylized and clean look. The film’s simple story allows for deeper character exploration, and using martial arts as the device to tell that story makes for a fun and lively movie. Keanu’s vision as a director is perfectly in line with the visuals and tropes of the great Kung-Fu films of the ’70s. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that the first-time director has completed the film that Bruce Lee had envisioned when constructing Game of Death, his demonstration of what his Jeet Kune Do could do. Of course instead of Jeet Kune Do getting the attention in this outing, the traditionally mellow art of Tai Chi is turned on its head to present its “hard” style, and how malleable it is as a form.
The story of the movie is straightforward and serviceable. Tiger enters a secret fighting tournament in an effort to raise funds to save his temple. He quickly turns his attention to less-than-honorable pursuits as he begins to let out his frustration through his fists. Keanu plays Donaka Mark, a master manipulator with more than one memorable scene burning into our retinas. “Sad Keanu” is a thing of the past, because there will be plenty of new memes generated around Mr. Reeves’ calm and eerily intense villain, a great throwback to the larger-than-life grand crime lords of classic martial arts cinema.
The crown jewel of this fun film is, of course, the well-choreographed fight scenes. Mixing wire-fu, practical martial arts techniques, and unique environments for backdrops, the fights all have creative and original action that keeps you upright in your seat waiting for the next one. When Keanu and Tiger finally face off against one another, it’s a battle that is both well-earned and not overhyped. The film’s climax is satisfying, and you leave the theater wishing you could pull off the feats you’ve just seen performed.
The underlying crime story that should be the driving force of Keanu’s motivation is weak, but it does allow for a splendid performance from Karen Mok as the captain of a Hong Kong police unit. SPOILER ALERT: The film’s story, involving police corruption, displays a more relaxed policy of how law enforcement in China is portrayed on screen. The idea of the Chinese government allowing a storyline about police corruption in a government-funded film is both surprising and hopeful.
Man of Tai Chi is a solid action movie with stunning fights in a classic setting. Keanu Reeves gives a fun performance, but also works magic behind the camera by creating a sleek and inventive kung fu movie for a new audience.
Man of Tai Chi is available on VOD Friday (September 27th) and in theaters November 1st. For more on Fantastic Fest and Man of Tai Chi, check out our coverage of the Fantastic Debates. And stay tuned to Nerdist.com for more from the director and star.