Screenwriter Michael G. Cooney takes a surprisingly philosophical approach to the standard underground-fight flick, and first-time director Keanu Reeves balances it with some impressively staged action scenes in Man of Tai Chi -- a solid martial-arts film that injects just enough fresh material into the mix to keep us guessing exactly where this violent tale is going. With some unique aesthetic approaches to distinguish his debut feature from the rest of the pack, Reeves displays a welcome willingness to play with the parameters of the standard structure; in addition, he compliments his writer’s strengths with some dazzling, supernaturally fluid fight choreography by the great Yuen Woo Ping.
After a brief underground fight in which we see a contestant killed for refusing to finish his opponent, we find talented young tai chi student Tiger Chen (played by the actor of the same name) training with his wise and powerful master. An apparent relic in the world of martial arts, Chen is the last living student of tai chi. Despite the obvious mastery on display as he quickly defeats his hulking rival in Beijing’s Wu Lin Wing Championships, he seems to have a particularly difficult time harnessing his chi, and that lack of control serves him well when he decides to earn some extra money fighting for the mysterious Donaka Mark (Reeves) in a lucrative underground fighting tournament. Chen needs the cash to support his parents and to save his temple from being demolished by an eager squad of real-estate developers. At first the money comes easy: Even the larger opponents are no match for Chen, whose formidable fighting style seems to evolve with each successive match. Later, when he discovers that his efforts to save the temple may have been in vain, his uncontrollable rage plunges him deeper into the dangerous competition than ever before. Meanwhile, the elusive Mark has already slipped away from Hong Kong police inspector Suen Jing-Si (Karen Mok) once, and she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Man of Tai Chi isn’t likely to have a major impact on the world of action cinema, but given his history in the genre, Reeves seems to know instinctively what his audience wants and serves it up with the sure hand of a perceptive pro who’s worked with the best in the business. The fight scenes in Man of Tai Chi are energetic and exciting, and Cooney does an impressive job of balancing them with the surprisingly meditative story of the film, which refreshingly doesn’t hinge on revenge or a rescue mission for momentum. Cooney has bigger things on his mind, and he isn’t afraid to tackle some topics that aren’t addressed in the standard action movie. Still, the philosophical musings of the plot never detract from the action, which repeatedly gives the deceptively slight Chen an opportunity to earn his status as a total badass and a capable leading man. Chen the character is an impassioned yet likable everyman, and Chen the actor does a good job of making us root for him -- even after we sense that he has become hopelessly corrupted. Conversely, Reeves is surprisingly loathsome following a brutal introduction that echoes throughout the film.
Lamentably, talented Hong Kong veterans Mok and Simon Yam get somewhat lost in the mix, as they do their best with what little the screenplay has to offer them; the less said about the underutilization of tae kwon do champion Silvio Simac and The Raid star Iko Uwais, the better. As much as Man of Tai Chi might disappoint in minor respects, however, overall it proves to be a surprisingly thoughtful tale of struggle and redemption. So even when the conflicted character at the center of the story seems to lose his way, the director telling that story maintains a steady stance and proves that the patience it took to learn from the masters was time well spent.
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