In bustling Beijing, China, ambitious young “Tiger” Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Chen) works as a lowly courier; but after work, he is a young martial arts star, rising through the ranks representing the Ling Kong Tai Chi tradition. Though most associate Tai Chi with peaceful, yoga-like movements, Tiger has perfected the ancient art and started to make a name for himself in the prestigious Wulin Wang martial arts championship.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, police investigator, Suen Jing-Si (Karen Mok), who works for the organized crime unit OCTB, has run into a wall in her pursuit of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). Donaka is a powerful Hong Kong businessmen who runs a secret underground fighting ring, where cold hard cash is made by defeating one’s opponent in a no-holds barred fight privately broadcast to wealthy patrons. Looking for a new “star,” Donaka tries to lure Tiger with the promise of easy money.
At first, Tiger declines, committed to the purity and integrity of his pursuit. But when his temple is threatened with redevelopment, Tiger relents so that he may protect the legacy of Ling Kong Tai Chi. Soon, Tiger is an underground sensation, defeating international opponents with reputations of deadly force. But the darker side of Tiger’s skill begins to emerge. His public fights in the Wulin Wang tournament become more aggressive, bringing Tiger unwanted attention and shame to his elderly master (Yu Hai).
Seemingly unable to harness the darkness inside of himself, Tiger eventually agrees to work with Jing-Si to bring down Donaka’s deadly private game. But when every fight is the fight of his life, will Tiger be able to sustain his best intentions and manage the darkest and worst possibilities of his craft?
I have already owned a digital purchase of this film for a couple of months now, and I have not had the chance to write about it until this post. I thoroughly enjoyed actor Keanu Reeves in his latest directorial debut as much as I have been promoting this film since last year through its late 2013 release, and not really knowing what kind of action movie we would end up with despite my optimism. As prominent as he is on his past successes with lead actor Tiger Chen on The Matrix Trilogy, I was almost certain we would get a pretty decent film. Well, it is sufficient to add that the word “decent” would be an understatement at best.
Aside from the martial arts spectacle, Man Of Tai Chi is a pure work of art that explores just what it means to be human in a world full of events that purport one’s own idea of individuality through life choices. Accordingly, it is here that what we see in Chen‘s physicality and fight performance in the choreography is almost equally matched in his acting skills, which are pivotal to any stunt performer of his calibur in his field. And considering Chen‘s experience with Reeves, the movie delivers a fine vision of two characters from polar opposites, played by actors whose great on-screen chemistry are derived from a long friendship that any fan can appreciate for a film like this one.
As rare as Tai Chi is seen now in a lot of action films, this movie offered a very simple, elemental blend to provide a formula for the choreography to convey what it needed to in such a modern-day setting. Master Yuen Woo-Ping and his team provided a solid foundation to tell this story on the action side, highlighted by increasing challenges and dangers presented by a vast array of fighters, namely veteran kung fu cinema actor Yu, along with Jeremy Marinas, Brahim Achabbakhe, Li Xingping and Chen Chao, as well as a special appearance by The Raid 2 star Iko Uwais, and late actor, stuntman, veteran stunt coordinator, performer and Master Yuen cohort, Ju Kun who fights Chen at the top of the film. But most importantly, the biggest deal of all to which anyone would agree would be the final fight, and as it stands, fans would be delighted to see Reeves performing intricate kung fu techniques just like the good old days under the Wachowskis. Some wirework is still a challenge, but regardless, Reeves is a solid actor, as well as a highly acclimated physical performer when called upon, and it shows in the footage.
All in all, Man Of Tai Chi is yet another exemplary result of what happens when great minds unite and think alike. Reeves, Chen and Master Yuen make a truly remarkable team, and if they got back together for another film that will further showcase Chen as a formidable leading man and further enhances Reeves‘ ability to direct, particularly a well-rounded, stylish, epic kung fu drama that speaks so much to the human spirit as this, I would not eschew it.
On a slightly sadder note, it was sometime after seeing Man Of Tai Chi that I learned among many that Ju Kun, 35, was one of the passengers on flight MH-370 that disappeared the week of March 8 this year before the plane reportedly crashed into the Indian Ocean. Although I have never known him personally, I have online acquaintances that did. And here, I want to send them my heartfelt condolences, and to further extend them to the families of the victims. We are nearly a month now since that awful event, and I hope that the healing process has moved forward for all those affected directly in one way or another by this tragedy. And that especially includes the cast and crew of Man Of Tai Chi.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.