Spectacular fight scenes make Man of Tai Chi truly memorable
Starring Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen, and Yu Hai. In Cantonese, Mandarin, and English with English subtitles. 19+ only. Opens Friday, November 1, at the Rio Theatre
You know all those gentle people you see doing tai chi in the park? Well, it turns out they can kick your ass. At least, that’s the message behind Man of Tai Chi, a movie that takes what’s generally considered to be a meditative form of exercise and gives it the full-on Bruce Lee treatment.
Not that I’m complaining. This is a movie that deliberately strives to mimic the giddy feel of early work from Lee or Jackie Chan without reminding us of a parody. It doesn’t always work, but there’s a genuinely serious intent that deserves respect.
Costar Keanu Reeves makes his debut behind the camera here. As a director, he clearly has a special affection for the genre, and he doesn’t try to mess with the hokey plot, which involves a gifted student of tai chi being lured into the high-stakes world of the underground-fight scene.
At first glance, our shaggy-haired hero doesn’t look like much. Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen, who did stunt work on The Matrix) seems puny, unassuming, and perfectly suited to his lowly job as a messenger boy in Beijing. But once you see him fight, there’s no way you’d kick sand in his face; it turns out that Tiger has an unusually aggressive nature. His tai chi master (Yu Hai) is concerned that his star pupil is corrupting his spiritual training. He keeps cautioning Tiger to chill out and meditate, but Tiger has his own agenda: he wants to unleash the hidden power of tai chi.
Tiger’s prowess catches the attention of an unsavoury underground-fight promoter (Reeves, whose customary stilted delivery adds an appropriate sense of cheesy menace). Tiger is initially reluctant to get involved, but when his tai chi temple looks like it’s going to be shut down for building-code violations, he decides to use the fight money for renovations.
As always, there’s a stubborn spiritual element to the story line. But it’s the spectacular fight scenes that make Man of Tai Chi truly memorable. The rest is just the right kind of window-dressing.