At one point in time many of us owed our teenage years to Keanu Reeves. Not only did the guy become a global star overnight thanks to The Matrix but he also put Kung-Fu back in vogue. Perhaps because of his affinity with martial arts Reeves has decided to make his directorial debut in Man of Tai Chi; a film based on the life and exploits of Tiger Chen, his coach on The Matrix.
Chen stars as himself, a devout Tai Chi student struggling to make ends meet. His achievements at national championships attract the attentions of Dakata Mark (Reeves) a mysterious businessman who organises secret underground fights. Soon Chen’s control over his honourable craft gives way to a dark and violent nature, pushing him to the brink of self-control in Mark’s shadowy games.
Man of Tai Chi is a strange film. It dodges between great action adventure and corny throw-away trash with all the rapidity of its lead’s martial arts. At times the jet-setting and glorious backdrops look like Tekken cast-offs and at others it seems to be going for Fight Club by way of Fast and Furious. The inconsistency will be the most irritating feature for most people.
The fight sequences are great, well-shot and obviously well under Reeves’ control. But CGI effects and an unfortunate stroll into Kung-Fu magic really send the film wobbling on its axis. This is a shame when moments of dark genius punctuate this near-camp affair. The heart of a thriller erupts at moments to accentuate what the film could have been, leaving Reeve’s debut- for the most part- floating in anonymity
Chen makes a great leading man, mysterious and strong, wilful yet troubled, his drives and actions however get lost in translation leaving the audience bewildered at his often unfound actions. On the subject of unfound actions Reeves’ own performance is in keeping with his repertoire: a wee bit silly. Playing the omnipresent leader of the underground fight club, Dakata Mark, Reeves is partial to a bit of over-acting, under-acting, and utterly ludicrous dialogue. Most of the time you won’t know whether to laugh but there’s no denying the magnetism of his screen presence – in a Nicholas Cage way. That is in no way a negative comment by the way. There is however an unattractive masturbatory quality to his fast cars, big persona, and finely tailored suits. A kind of quality that salt-wraps his watchable manoeuvres.
For some people this could be the oddball-exploitation-action runaway of the year, for most it will be exploitation of the audience; a mess of different ideas with its head half screwed on. But there’s enough fun action to keep you distracted from the fact this is just a tad off-mark.
10th & 11th September 2013 (TIFF)
Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Iko Uwais