TORONTO – For the last two days, every time I’ve mentioned to someone that I planned to see the film “Man Of Tai Chi,” which marks the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves, the reaction has been the same. Rolled eyes, some sort of joke, and a general attitude that there’s no way they would end up joining me for the screening. At the screening tonight at the Ryerson, there was only one other journalist there that I recognized, despite this being the premiere with Reeves in attendance.
Shot in China, with a Chinese cast, and with the entire thing shot in Chinese with English subtitles, “Man Of Tai Chi” is a no-apologies martial arts film, a movie that features wall to wall fights that are shot and choreographed with such an obvious love for the genre and for the poetry of fighting that I was won over almost immediately. Chen Lin-Hu stars as Tiger Hu Chen, a modest student of Tai Chi master Yang (Yu Hai). Tiger works as a delivery guy for a Fed Ex-like company, and he trains for a tournament where he hopes to prove that Tai Chi is not just for exercise, but is a real martial art capable of defeating anything else. Even in the early training sequences, it’s obvious that Tiger is impatient to learn, which is at direct odds with the teachings of his master. Even when they’re in the midst of a practice fight, Tiger is always moving too fast, his master urging him to slow down, to find a meditative place within himself.
At the same time, there’s another story unfolding. The very first thing we see is an underground no-holds-barred fight between two martial artists. When one guy manages to beat the other one to the ground, he is told to finish his opponent. He refuses, and a masked man walks in and breaks the loser’s neck. In his dressing room afterwards, the winner of the fight seems troubled, and then the man in the mask appears, his face now exposed, revealing him to be Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). He pulls out a knife and stabs the fighter to death, furious that he refused to finish the fight with lethal force. And the entire time, Sun Jingshi, a Hong Kong police captain played by Karen Mok seems to be perpetually one step behind Donaka.
During the first match that Tiger fights in the tournament, Donaka happens to tune in, and he sees something special in Tiger, who wins that first fight. Donaka begins to lay out a plan to ensnare Tiger and turn him into a killing machine for more of those underground fights. Tiger resists at first, but then circumstance backs him into a corner when it looks like his master is going to lose the 600-year-old temple where Tiger learns in favor of a new construction project. Tiger, who doesn’t really understand what he’s getting himself into, agrees to take Donaka’s job offer so he can help his master.
As Captain Jingshi struggles to figure out a way crack the veil of secrecy that Donaka has managed to erect to block her efforts, Tiger continues to move up in the official televised tournament. He also finds himself increasingly drawn into Donaka’s world, fight after fight after fight turning him into a much harder fighter. One of the things that makes “Man Of Tai Chi” fun is that it rarely allows much screen time to pass before the next fight begins, and Reeves, who obviously trained for his role as Neo in “The Matrix,” proves to be an acute director when it comes to shooting each fight as dramatic sequences instead of fighting for its own sake. Yuen Woo Ping is the action director for the film, and we see all sorts of styles incorporated into the various flurries of violence. The fights are percussive, brutal at times, and the work by cinematographer Elliot Davis (“Out Of Sight,” “Thirteen”) and editor Derek Hui makes it exceptionally easy to follow.
Look, “Man Of Tai Chi” doesn’t bend or tweak or reinvent the general model of a kung-fu film, but it’s also not just empty homage. This is Keanu’s specific expression of what he finds beautiful about fighting, and the overall plan that Donaka has is pretty strong. By the time we get to the last of the underground fights (which is against none other than Iko Uwais, the star of the amazing Gareth Evans film “The Raid), “Man Of Tai Chi” has set the stakes very high and the script by Michael G. Cooney manages to pull the various story threads together, and the film satisfies in a way that makes this more than just a stunt reel. You don’t have to reinvent something if you can simply make entertaining instead, and “Man Of Tai Chi” is certainly that. I sincerely hope Reeves gets to make another movie, because this is a really solid debut, and not the joke that many people seem to have dismissed it as over the course of the festival.
“Man of Tai Chi” will be released on VOD on Sept 27 and have a limited theatrical release on Nov 1.