3 StarsKeanu Reeves tries his hand at the directing game in a bid to add yet another hyphenate to his resume. Years of wire work and martial arts training on the set of The Matrix trilogy have obviously been put to good use, as Reeves has assembled a top-notch team to surround his cast and himself from falling flat. This is an extremely polished looking debut feature, the production design is cold and sparse adding to a Matrix like vibe of muted colors and open spaces. These assets work in the film’s favor, the story is rudimentary for the genre, but the cinematography and editing are so sharp they mask the ordinary.
Tiger Chen is a young pupil of the ancient mediative martial art form known as Tai Chi. This isn’t the breathing in the park kind of Tai Chi, Tiger is an exceptionally skilled fighter who incorporates his learnings into practical use. After winning a sanctioned tournament on national television, Tiger is exalted and catches the attention of reclusive businessman Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). In a moment of surprise, Tiger is ambushed and must fight for his life, in winning the battle Mark offers the fighter enormous sums of money to take place in his underground fight club.
Conflicted, but in need of the money, Tiger reluctantly agrees to use his secret skills for prizes. Knowing this information goes against all he has been taught, Tiger attempts to conceal his involvement from his teacher and friends, unaware that the bouts are streamed live across the globe. Even more troubling is the fact that the increasing mysterious Donaka Mark has placed Tiger under 24hr video surveillance. It’s a nice ‘big brother’ twist on the standard plot. But what is Reeves saying here? Is corporate involvement turning a beloved art-form into mainstream thrills for a cash grab? I recently viewed the documentary Room 237, in which cinema-heads waxed on the deeper themes hidden in the sub-text of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning. Perhaps the theorists have seeped into my consciousness, because I couldn’t shake the notion that Reeves is making a statement on The Matrix introducing western audiences to something that was strictly used in eastern films for generations. Call me crazy, just don’t call me maybe. I digress.
The theme here is that power doesn’t equate control, the master of Tai Chi is supposed to have his inner balance in check. Tiger becomes blood thirsty after the success he’s tasted on the underground circuit that he begins to associate physical dominance as control. His master must reinstall in the young martial artist that power is an illusion for those out of control.
Man of Tai Chi won’t hold much appeal to those uninitiated with the martial arts genre, this is strictly for devout fans of films from the shaw brothers or Reeves completists. I consider myself both, which may explain my enjoyment of a movie that in different hands would be a snoozer.
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Stars: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok