Who knew that what Keanu Reeves really wanted was to play the villain in a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture? And direct it?
“Man of Tai Chi” is a martial arts actioner that has the formulaic plot of a score of other films, many of which starred Van Damme, with Reeves playing the mysterious rich guy who stages private off-the-books brawls matching fighters of various styles.
“No referees, no rules,” he purrs, explaining his contests to a young Tai Chi master (Tiger Hu Chen).
“It’s dishonorable,” Tiger (the character’s name, too) complains. We’ve seen the guy train with his Tai Chi master (Yu Hai), who tries to strip rage and passions out of Tiger’s regimen even as he turns this ancient exercise martial art into something that will make Tiger a national champion in legitimate competitions.
“You are not controlling your Chi,” the old man intones. “Your Chi is controlling you!”
But whatever Donaka Mark (Reeves) wants, Donaka gets – be it Bugatti Veyrons, Bentleys or brawlers. He puts the squeeze on Tiger’s teacher and spies on his family. Tiger is forced to do his courier job during the day, his televised, sanctioned tournaments on the weekend and Donaka’s for-profit tussles after hours.
Millions of practitioners of Tai Chi use it as exercise, a slow, balletic dance of choreographed moves that improve limberness, circulation and lead to – they hope – longevity. But the martial art’s name translates to “boundless fist.” The pitiless Donaka wants to see if the ultimate master of this serene fighting form can be turned into a ruthless thug in the ring.
“Man of Tai Chi” has more fights than you can count as Tiger battles all manner, race and creed of mixed martial arts brawlers and boxers.
“Tai Chi’s for show,” one trash-talks him. “You’ve already lost!”
Tiger’s “Dude, I am SO going to mess you up” face helps change his mind.
The bloodier fights for Donaka soon infect Tiger’s sanctioned bouts, and we wonder how low he will sink and when the inevitable fight with you-know-who will wrap this up.
Reeves is a competent director, packing this stylish-looking picture with well-staged and -filmed fights. The magical martial arts stuff is kept to a minimum, the gravity-defying wire-work less obvious.
As an actor, he never quite got over his “Matrix”-inspired need to be “inscrutable.” His clothes are black (he wears a black mask, in some scenes), his dialogue clipped and punchy.
But the script here is pretty stale stuff, with an underdeveloped side story of the cop (Karen Mok) on Donaka’s trail and dialogue (in English and Chinese) that is often banal.
Take away Reeves’ involvement, and “Man of Tai Chi” would be indistinguishable from scores of martial arts program pictures, brutally efficient, in its way, formulaic in story and execution.