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He uses soft style in a hard way.

Man of Tai Chi
(2013)

Keanu doesn’t know Tai Chi. At least, his villainous alter ego in Man of Tai Chi doesn’t. Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is a star vehicle for fight choreographer and diminutive chum Tiger Chen (with whom he worked on The Matrix trilogy). Chen, who bears a passing resemblance to John Cazale, more than holds his own as a leading man, in a rudimentary but effective narrative that finds him overcome with yin and battling to regain his yang. This, naturally, involves a lot of fighting.


This premise is recognisable anywhere, any time; Tiger (Luke) is trained by a master (Ben Kenobi/Yoda) but is tempted by the dark (Yin) side that is Donaka (Reeves; Darth Vader/the Emperor). His master is even called Master Yang (Hai Yu); it’s up there for all to see in orange highlighter. It’s no secret that Lucas’ films consciously blended Eastern and western religion and mysticism in order to tap into universal themes.


Here, right from the start, Master Yang is worried about the disruptive forces within Tiger (“You are not controlling your Chi. Your Chi is controlling you”). Tiger is attracted to power, to prove that Tai Chi is effective for fighting (and so to disprove the pronouncement of his opponent in a local competition; “Tai Chi is just for show. You’ve already lost”). In so doing, Tiger attracts the attention of Reeves’ super-rich Donaka, owner of a private security firm. He runs an illegal fight club in which the contestants may end up dead, one that is under investigation by police officer Sun-Jing Shi (Karen Mok).


Of course, it’s necessary to provide Tiger with motivation to sign up (fighting for money is not honourable, so he requires the lure of a threat to his master’s temple). When he does, a series of escalating encounters ensue. Reeves the director, aided by Woo–ping Yen designing the action, has learnt well. He ensures the fights are brutal and vital, complemented by a driving soundtrack that adds a touch of the oriental to Matrix style beats. Michael G Cooney’s script embraces the archetypes and furnishes a few modern touches; Tiger’s life becomes a Truman Show, filmed at every stage to a paying audience; when it is played back for his edification/horror, it feels like a strange mash up of Peter Weir’s film with The Parallax View test reel.


There wouldn’t be any movie if Tiger accepted his master’s wisdom at the outset, so evidently it’s much more fun to pursue the yang path in filmic terms. This is coloured, however, by having rigid, succinct Donaka (Reeves playing to the minimalist, an effective choice) root for Tiger to become all he can be. Donaka’s methods are merely an inversion of his own master’s teaching, and ultimately there is a blurring of the lines of attainment. Tiger rejects Donaka’s path, refusing to kill for him. But Donaka has his way in the end, when he confronts Tiger and the latter calls upon Yang’s technique of palm striking his opponent. So Tiger delivers Donaka the life he is owed, while Tiger, in so doing, acts with the control Master Yang saw as essential to development.


While the Tiger fights are consistently engaging, Reeves is responsible for the occasional misstep. The Raid’s Iko Uwais is wasted in a cameo as one of Tiger’s opponents, while Reeves is stiff and unconvincing of pose during the climactic confrontation. His appropriation of martial arts worked when conveyed within the stylistic trappings of the Wachowskis’ Matrix universe, but, paired with Tiger, he’s more akin to a lumbering giant. Additionally, the investigation subplot never justifies its inclusion.


Reeves is willing to indulge supernatural elements (the palm strike, the beast like snarl Donaka emits when roused), but he stops short of fully embracing elemental forces. As such, there’s a wee bit of a hodgepodge going on, the director and writer straddling stools at any given moment. Still, this is a decent and modest spectacle, and hopefully Reeves will get back in the director’s seat again soon.

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