Whilst making The Matrix trilogy, actor Keanu Reeves befriended stunt man Tiger Chen, a protégé of legendary martial arts choreographer Woo Ping Yeun. Man of Tai Chi has been a long-term project for Reeves and Chen, five years in the making, with the former A-list superstar now directing, and the former stunt man now the hero of the story. Yeun also makes his presence felt, directing the fight action, but whilst the limb-flailing combat sequences are expertly choreographed, they become tediously repetitive in a film desperately looking for some heart and soul. Chen may be the man of Tai Chi, but Reeves (who also plays the villain) is more the man of concrete, predictable behind the camera and a passive mask of grunts in front of it. With video game writer Michael G. Cooney in charge of the script, this is definitely no excellent adventure.
Chen plays himself, a disciple of the peaceful art of Tai Chi, being trained by a wise and noble master who warns him that, if unable to control his power, he will never find himself. Deep. With a desire to fight rather than meditate, Chen joins a televised martial arts competition where he is spotted by an evil and wealthy security advisor (Reeves), who’s in need of some fresh fighting meat for his lucrative, underground fight-to-the-death network. Although he initially declines the offer, Chen is manipulated into signing up in order to finance repairs to his master’s temple when it is suddenly threatened with a demolition order. Watching proceedings carefully is a Police Detective (Karen Mok) who is determined to bring the illicit and deadly fighting ring to justice.
Little more than an excuse for a series of martial arts fights, the film won’t be launching Reeves as a serious player in the directorial world, and continues his run of stilted performances in front of camera. With no variety in the fighting or fight locations, and none of the earlier promised car chases and bigger action sequences making it to the final version of the film, it’s a tedious affair bounded by a shallow story. Chen is superbly athletic as a fighter but is no leading man, and nothing is made in the narrative of either his love interest – with an innocent office girl (Ye Qing) who helps save the temple from demolition – or with a potentially explosive showdown with top fighter Iko Uwais – the charismatic star of the brilliant martial arts film The Raid: Redemption. In a recent media conference in Beijing – where the film was being launched to the Chinese market – Reeves suggested that the film had layers of philosophy that would separate it from other big holiday release films. I must have missed that bit.