It’s not entirely simply a matter of being snarky to refer to Keanu Reeve’s directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, as a vanity project through and through. Constructed as a showcase for martial artist Tiger Hu Chen, this is hardly the first time in the history of action films that an entire project has revolved around the unique athletic and choreographic talents of a given individual. Still, it’s somewhat difficult to see what Keanu brings to the table, despite what appears to be at least capable direction in keeping with genre expectations, trading upon whatever is left from his Matrix-era klout and bringing another Yuen Woo-ping extravaganza to the (very) big screen.
Shown at TIFF via newly installed digital projection beamed onto a proper sized IMAX screen, this predominantly Chinese language film has the feel of a second-rung Hong Kong action pic from the 80s. The story proceeds in a fairly rote, predictable fashion, with the young fighter needing to save his master’s temple, and must sacrifice some of his honour in order to do so. Stripped away from its moments of mysticism, this is little more than an entrant in the Street Fighter saga, a videogame-like episodic fighting film with an increasingly intimidating class of opponents.
Tiger gets to confront a number of impressive combatants, including a penultimate battle with The Raid‘s Iko Uwais. It’s in the use of Iko that the film demonstrates its faults – here we have one of the most dynamic on-screen martial artists in a generation, and he’s used for a paltry few moments, mostly to show off his creeping toe technique (which, it must be admitted, is kind of awesome). This no doubt is to make the final opponent even more intimidating, and while telegraphed from about minute one of the film, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who the last, awkward battle takes place between.
I liked the casting of Karen Mok as a police captain, her angular features providing a strong presence in the film as the police captain on the trail of this multinational Martial Arts Truman show (don’t ask…). There’s a scene of great kineticism that she’s a part of that’s actually one of the most jarring and effective, if implausible, and she handles it well. In fact, save for Reeves, most of the performances seem perfectly attuned to this type of film.
Alas, Mr. “Woah” is as misplaced as you’d expect, his wiry frame and monotonal delivery more of a distraction than a welcome component of the piece. Despite being his film to direct, it’s Keanu’s inclusion that seems the most forced of them all. When he tried to play menacing, it comes of as contrived, there’s little behind those dark eyes, which is frankly a shame given that in other contexts he has proven to be quite a capable performer. Here, it seems he’s trying to hard to be coolly detached, and it comes across, like much of the film, as indulgent.
After all is said and done, after we’ve gone through the rote paces in an assembly line fashion, we’re left with a mildly enjoyable if completely forgettable martial arts film. Sure, it’s channeling many films that proceeded it, but save for a few brief moments, and the added benefit of experiencing it on a giant screen, Man Of Tai Chihas little to recommend save for the committed fan of the genre that is simply excited there’s another film for them to see.