Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut kung fu movie is a lot better than The RZA’s directorial debut kung fu movie. The Man with the Iron Fists was full of passion and some fun creative ideas, but still a mess. With Man of Tai Chi, I think Reeves has achieved Bruce Lee’s vision for Game of Death. It is an ascending tower of martial arts displays, escalating combatants for the hero but still conveying the true message of martial arts. That’s what Bruce Lee was making when he died, and of all people to succeed him, it was the Matrix guy.
Donaka Mark (Reeves) runs an underground fighting tournament. He picks out Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen, carrying on the Jackie Chan tradition of just going by his real name in movies) to be the next star. Tiger is training with a Tai Chi master (Yu Hai) but he’s focusing more on the power than on mastering his Chi to evade attacks. Fighting for Donaka Mark corrupts Tiger, so the battle becomes not only against Donaka’s deadly empire, but within his own spirit. THAT’s a kung fu movie, grasshopper!
To be fair, Reeves has a major advantage over RZA. Reeves got Yuen Woo-ping to choreograph the fights. RZA wanted him but Woo-Ping wasn’t available. I’m sorry, I’m just going to say it. Yuen Woo-ping is a better choreographer than Corey Yuen. The way the fights flow is just so much more graceful and organic, and seems to work with the editing.
We can all dream of single take long shot fight sequences, but the really cool moves probably require some degree of editing just for safety. Reeves keeps the camera as close as it needs to be and as far back as we want it to be, cut with a forward momentum so that each shot flows into the next. A two-on-one fight seems to cut directionally with both opponents as they split up and come together. I also saw Woo-Ping use a wire move to pull an opponent closer, where most choreographers use wires to have fighters fly away.
That’s the technical part. The awesome part is that Tiger’s initiation is basically a fight room where he faces a series of colorful opponents. That’s where I started thinking Game of Death. Instead of a tower, they just bring new opponents into the same room. The forum proceeds to even more lavish arenas and even more colorful opponents. One tag team resembles Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter to me, another is just a long mulletted Asian knockout king. The film doesn’t really rely on gimmicks, but those two in particular stood out. It’s really the style of each fighter that distinguishes them, as it should be.
Let’s talk about Tiger Chen. Tiger Chen is amazing. Thank you, Keanu Reeves, for seeing that Tiger Chen was amazing and needed his own vehicle to showcase his skills. Chen is credited with stunts on the Matrix sequels, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Charlie’s Angels, and appearing in a few other Chinese movies. He is magnetic, engaging and badass. I want to say he moves like water. Is that too much? I don’t want to overhype him but I love this guy.
There really is enough tournament fighting to make Bloodsport feel like a slacker, which is rightfully the bread and butter of Man of Tai Chi. In between fights, the story illustrates the concepts of Tai Chi that make the fights matter that much more. Tiger faces real world problems that he can’t fight his way out of. It may seem contrived that he’s trying to save his temple from the government, but this is the perfect illustration of the Master’s lesson. Tiger is so powerful, it may seem like he can just fight his way to the top and use the money to save the temple. Audiences may even root for Tiger to use his power to win everything his temple needs. But it’s about more than money with the government, and putting on a fighting show could actually cost him the temple.
I’m trying not to spoil anything here, it’s really not a major plot point. Really, it’s the Spider-Man scene. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s not just beating the bad guy; you have to do the right thing even when you don’t like it. Donaka is essentially the evil emperor, tempting his protégé to use his dark power. It’s fitting there’s a Star Wars parallel since Star Wars itself was inspired by these kinds of martial arts myths.
With screenwriter Michael G. Cooney, Reeves has created a world that embraces his persona, stoic and direct. Tiger finds himself in a veritable world of Keanus where everyone is brief, direct and strongly enunciated. People are going to make fun of Reeves for playing such an arch villain but he’s too smart and aware of his own reputation to portray himself this way by accident. When he sees Tiger, he points and utters the single word, “Innocent.” When Tiger asks him questions, Donaka only responds, “Does it matter?”
It actually doesn’t. Tiger’s going along with it regardless and too many movies would explain it all. At one point Donaka looks straight into camera and screams. This is somewhat in line with the exaggerated characters of Hong Kong movies, but mainly it’s just awesome. Screw backstory and exposition, just be evil. He doesn’t say “Whoa” though. That would have been too perfect.
Directorially, Reeves has created a film world that is more visceral than narrative. In simplifying the dialogue, the film can give more focus to the feelings of the narrative than the basic plot. If the adage is “show, don’t tell,” then Man of Tai Chi takes it another level, saying, “Feel, don’t show.” When Tiger returns to his Master after being corrupted, there is a powerful, profound fight scene. If I had to fault any directorial choice, I might say the music was a little too techno for my taste, but it wasn’t really obtrusive.
The plot may get a little more convoluted than necessary with one twist too many towards the end, but at least the film doesn’t dwell on these turns or overexplain the plot. We get it in a single line of dialogue, although when Donaka does a villainous cackle he’s sort of asking to become a meme. The point is we know all these tournament story, crimelord story, student/master story tropes already. Man of Tai Chi distills them to a pure essence and still gets to a mystical, kick-ass finale.