Tiger Hu Chen plays a man coerced into underground fighting by a sinister businessman played by Keanu Reeves in "Man of Tai Chi." Credit: RADiUS-TWC
‘Man of Tai Chi’ Director: Keanu Reeves Stars: Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Keanu Reeves hasn’t headlined a major blockbuster since 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” redux, an absence that can be partly explained by him working on curious and admirable passion projects. First there was the more or less solid film versus digital documentary “Side by Side,” now the somewhat rickety martial arts extravaganza “Man of Tai Chi.”
Apart from a climactic mano-a-mano, the onetime Neo sticks to a non-fighting role as baddie Donaka Mark, a mysterious Svengali who runs an underground fighting ring. Tiger Hu Chen, a stuntman from the “Matrix” sequels, gets the main role: a messenger by day and student of tai chi by night. Despite working in a style that’s traditionally nonviolent, stressing inner peace and self-control, he’s strapped enough to be coerced by Mark into making money beating the crap out of people.
Chen only commands the screen when he’s kicking butt, but Reeves’ performance is the main liability here. A limited actor, Reeves surprisingly excels at playing dangerous, as in “The Gift” and “Street Kings.” He’s decidedly less than sinister as a puppetmaster who growls all his lines while doing a high school boy-level imitation of the “Clockwork Orange” stare (a scream he lets out late in has to be one of the corniest things ever committed to film — or digital.)
Reeves is more accomplished as a filmmaker. He cuts too much, but he respects the fighters’ abilities — and the viewers’ desire to see them. The fight choreography (by Yuen Woo-ping, who handled “Fist of Legend” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is lean and rough, and the script is wise to find ways to advance the story through tussles, rather than just offer one after the other. As far as obvious lifelong dream films made by Bruce Lee junkies, “Man of Tai Chi” lacks the insanity of RZA’s “The Man With the Iron Fists,” but it’s endearingly goofy all the same.