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Man of Tai Chi (2013), a so-so martial arts movie that probably shouldn’t have been directed by Keanu Reeves

March 19, 2014

MY CALL:  The fights weren’t great and overall this was just okay.  I feel it would have been better if Keanu didn’t direct it.  This is one of those cases where following the classic kumite martial arts movie tropes would have paid off.  MORE MOVIES LIKE Man of Tai Chi:  If you want great fights that will leave you begging for more, then aim for Bloodsport (1988), The Quest (1996), The Rundown (2003), The Condemned (2007), The Protector (2005), Ong-Bak (2003), The Raid: Redemption (2011), Undisputed II (2006) and Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (2013), to name a few.

Keanu Reeves plays the quintessential Jean-Claude Van Damme movie bad guy.  Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves; 47 Ronin, Constantine) drives a ridiculous car, lives in a ridiculous house and runs a ridiculous underground fighting syndicate simply to entertain himself.  He’s mega-rich yet he conducts a wealth of felonious business.

Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen; stunts for The Matrix movies) is a disciplined martial arts practitioner, but he can’t seem to harness his Chi (sort of like becoming enlightened or something).  Donaka sees Chen win a kung fu tournament with his Tai Chi and wants him as a competitor.  Chen is young, innocent, has a kind soul, and wants to change people’s skewed perspective towards Tai Chi as a legitimate fighting style.  Tiger Chen brings us Tai Chi like we have never seen it before, a soft style done hard.

He comes to Donaka’s security agency for a job interview only to be attacked by a trained fighter.  The fight is the interview.  Chen is conflicted about using his fighting for personal gain, but accepts Donaka’s offer when his master’s 600 year old Tai Chi Temple is threatened.

The stunts are good when judged by themselves (out of the context of the fight scene).  There’s more wire-work than I’d prefer–really, if I can tell you’re using wires then you’re doing it poorly.  For me it was a little too much Matrix meets Hong Kong cinema, and not enough “practical yet amazing” stunts a la Undisputed II (2006).  The martial arts choreography fell far short of my expectations.  Bits here and there were great, but the parts in-between the occasional great few seconds failed to hold it all together as a credible fight of such caliber.

Did the action disappoint me?  Yes.  But did that mean that I couldn’t enjoy this movie?  Not at all.  This movie is presented with a straight face but has an over-the-top story that smacks of the 80s and 90s Van Damme movies that I loved so much.  Needless to say, it brought about a few chuckles at times.  Bloodsport (1988), Lionheart (1990), The Quest (1996)…these movies didn’t necessarily have “great” choreography throughout.   No, no, no.  But they had great fight scenes that entertained.  Man of Tai Chi tries to follow the same trajectory.  But a few showboat moments here and there to capture the oohs and aahs, glued together by “filler” choreography just didn’t do it for me.  Another down-side was that this was presented with none of the tongue-in-cheek humor we’d find in JCVD’s roles between the fight scenes.  This was maybe a teeny bit too serious.  As director, I think Keanu needed to have a little more fun with it all.

This was a waste of a fight.  Tiger Chen only fights this guy so that Keanu could show that he fought bigger, stronger opponents.

Same deal here.

Another thing the JCVD movies got right was that every opponent (and therefore every fight) had his own style.  Not just fighting style, but personality.  This film makes an attempt at this, but really fails to deliver.  I found myself unimpressed with some of the fights, and the fighters were often devoid of any personality.  The AMAZING Iko Uwais (The Raid: Redemption) gets a cameo, but it’s squandered.  FAIL.

The final fight against Donaka wasn’t even good, verging on farcically bad.  The choreography was poor, Keanu appeared to be moving very slowly yet somehow taking Tiger by surprise, the lines were hammed up, and there were no impressive moves.  Adding to the nonsense, Tiger manages to attain enlightenment mid-fight and basically throws a Kameha-meha Haduken to defeat his wealthy oppressor who keeps repeating “you owe me a life” like a broken villainous record.

Did I think this movie could have been done much, much better.  Absolutely.  But I still enjoyed it…in the sense that it’s “so bad it’s good.”  It was nothing powerful or wowing.  I’ll probably never feel the urge to see it again.  But it was okay.  I was marginally entertained by the fights (but didn’t love them), I liked the over-the-top story of an eccentric billionaire running an illegal fighting circuit, and I liked watching Keanu play this over-the-top bad guy.

In all honesty, I feel this would have been far better if Keanu didn’t direct it.  This is one of those cases where following the classic kumite martial arts movie tropes would have paid off.

Mark wrote a much more positive review of this film in case readers would like a second opinion.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2014 9:51 am

    Reeves for President! He was like a “bruh” Bond Villain. The movie needed more Iko though.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 19, 2014 8:56 pm

      Iko was wasted. I don’t understand at all why they didn’t “use” him. Only people who knew who he was would be excited…and then disappointed that he didn’t go all Raid: Redemption on the Man of Tai Chi.

  2. Sweet Sugar permalink
    March 19, 2014 12:06 pm

    Wow. Tough customer. Everyone I’ve talked to has loved the movie, especially Keanu’s role.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 19, 2014 9:36 pm

      People and their opinions are interesting to compare. Some folks simply love Wes Anderson films…I can’t stand them. I love shoestring budget, extremely non-mainstream, gore-slathered, campy horror…most of society (especially Wes Anderson film fans) can’t stand them. Haha

  3. Victor De Leon permalink
    March 20, 2014 9:46 am

    Nice review. I am actually looking for to this one. Heard really good things and your review sounds pretty fair all in all. Good job! (Oh and for the record, I don’t get Wes Anderson either. His films do nothing for me)

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 20, 2014 7:55 pm

      Thanks for the support, Vic! I imagine any action movie fan will be entertained by this little romp. And be careful about the Wes Anderson comments. His fans skulk about in the shadows of this website waiting to pounce armed with their off color humor.

      • Victor De Leon permalink
        March 20, 2014 8:02 pm

        Ha! I’ll keep my head down. Would it help if I said I enjoyed Rushmore and Bottle Rocket just a wee bit? 😉

        Keep up the great work up on the page! Always fun to drop by. I’ll let you know my thoughts on Tai Chi after I’ve watched it.

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