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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 09.26.13] action kungfu

Keanu Reeves, director. If I'd seen those words together in the 90s, I would have wondered what sort of alternate reality they heralded from but that was before Keanu Reeves went from comedic dumbass with heart to romantic lead to action star. It's a career trajectory that has served the actor well and this is only the next logical step for an actor who is far smarter than most of the characters he's played over the years.

Man of Tai Chi is the perfect fit for Reeves who has shared a love affair with martial arts and a friendship with Kun Fu master Tiger Hu Chen for nearly two decades. Chen stars as Tiger, the last student of Tai Chi caught between tradition and the future. On the one side is his master advising that Tiger simply isn't ready and that it is not honorable to use Tai Chi for fighting but the athlete disagrees, he sees great potential in Tai Chi as a fighting sport and when not training or working his dead end delivery job, he enters tournaments.

It's at one of these that he's discovered by Donaka Mark (Reeves), a mysterious character running a reality-show type underground fighting ring. Tiger is reluctantly recruited into the ring but his life is turned upside down when Donaka's illegal activities bring police heat but beyond that, Tiger begins to change and the fighter who was once innocent and pure is slowly being tuned into a killer.

There isn't much of a story here, just enough to set up the fight sequences and create a bit of a framework for the introduction of a number of other plays like a love interest for Chen and an external adversary for Donaka, but it's just enough to build a really likable character in Tiger, one that we like and root for even if there's never any doubt that he'll win. He's very clearly the star, the little guy who should not be under estimated and Reeves uses that to maximum advantage, pitting the pint size fighter against all sorts of characters who look like they could crush him with their pinkies. The one problem is that after the first fight, it's pretty clear that Tiger can't be beat. Each new adversary ups the ante, the fights become more complex and involved but there's never really a sense of danger or that Tiger can lose in the ring. That danger is only found outside the ring between Tiger and Donaka, a man who doesn't appreciate being crossed or disobeyed, especially by a fighter he has essentially created and who Donaka thinks is under his complete control.

The lesson here: it's always the little guys you should worry about most.

It may be a bit weak on story but Man of Tai Chi is elevated to levels of awesome solely by the fight sequences. They are fantastic and exciting, captured beautifully by Reeves and cinematographer Elliot Davis and even though we know who wins every time, they're still hugely enjoyable to watch and are reminiscent of the kung fu movies of the 80s where you could throw 15 bad guys at the protagonist and know he was going to kick all their asses and still clap at the end. Man of Tai Chi captures that sort of kinetic energy and keeps it alive through every sequence leading to the showdown fight.

Man of Tai Chi is the best kind of entertaining spectacle: it doesn't take itself too seriously and it does what it sets out to do really, really well. Here's hoping Reeves has a few more of these up his sleeve.

Man of Tai Chi is available on VOD Friday, September 27th and opens theatrically November 1st.

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wtf (8 years ago) Reply

this movie is bullshit. keanu reeves is as much a fighter as jack black is a wrestler. it's HORRIBLE and the pain watching his last "fight" is enormous. boooooooo!!!

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