Review: Man of Tai Chi

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“You are nothing,” Donaka Mark says, to “Tiger” Chen.
“I am nothing,” responds Tiger, ready.

Man of Tai Chi

©2013 Universal Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, China Flim Co. Ltd.
Produced by Lenore Syvan and Daxing Zhang
Written by Michael G. Cooney
Director: Keanu Reeves
Action Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Director of Photography: Elliot Davis (Thirteen)
Editor: Derek Hui
Running Time: 105 minutes
Budget: est. $25 million U.S.
Rated “R” for violence
Stars: Tiger Chen Lin-Hu; Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin); Karen Mok; Yu Hai; Simon Yam; Ye Qing; and Iko Uwais as Gilang Sanjaya

Synopsis

In Keanu Reeves directorial debut, Tai Chi, a system of physical exercises utilized for meditation and self-defense, becomes a weapon of death when an underground kill-or-be-killed fight club emerges.  Tiger Chen, a student and public Wulin Cometition champ, is up to fight—not for personal gain, but in the effort to save Master Tang’s (Hai) historic temple that dates back some six hundred years or more.

By day, Donaka Mark (Reeves) runs a securities firm, Security System Alliance.  By night, he runs a pay-per-view death match.  And inspector Suen Jing Si (Mok) is on the case, against the wishes/orders of superintendent Wong (Yam).

Tiger is warned by his master not to blur the lines between power and control, but Tiger, corrupted by Donaka, holds on to the illusion.  He would come to find out that his life’s been under a microscope—hidden cameras everywhere.

Backstory Brief

The legendary Wo Ping worked his magic when stuntman Chen worked with Reeves for The Matrix (as Reeves’ trainer).  Years later, Chen came to Reeves on collaborating again, for this project.  Chen conveyed director Reeves as a man with a lot of homework, taking notes, to the total size of a large stack.

Over five years was spent in the making of this film, total.

Take

Geared toward a more general audience, the plot is simple, and the dialogue is short.  Almost all of the Chinese text has adjacent, in-film English translations.

The action is well-performed, and the acting is convincing, especially with Chen.  For Reeves, Donaka Mark is his most serious role to date, as a stone-cold psychopath, to the point of maniacally grinning while being punched in the face.

Elliot Davis performed his specialty in capturing the emotions of the characters, the sweetness between Chen and his paralegal love interest named Qing-Sha (Ye Qing), the response when Chen came to see that his opponents would nevertheless die, as a black-masked man would enter to “finish the job” with a snap of the loser’s neck.

The martial arts genre is partly known these days for fantastical/legendary feats, making use of wire effects for great scenes commonplace.  But I found the two big Chi moments unreal—as if (and as with The Matrix) you’re able to push people across the room with Chi energy without contact.  (Of all of the footage I’ve seen on extraordinary uses of Chi, contact’s always made—even with the “One Inch Death Punch,” as demonstrated in Stan Lee’s Superhumans, converging a host of body energy to one fist.)

Overall, this film brings a nice display of Tai Chi, but fails to really add anything else.  It pales in comparison to The Grand Master, which brought a number of forms of painstaking martial arts to the screen, with an intent of historical accuracy.  It was easier for the two lead male characters in Man of Tai Chi, already having years of experience.

That isn’t to say this film was easy to make.  But script-wise, its supporting characters are cliché, its plot is too simple and wrapped up too easily.  Grade: B-

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