From an action movie perspective, Man of Tai Chi delivers just about everything you'd want. There are tons of fights, all of which are easy to see and understand, as well as a simple plot based around both the spiritual and physical aspects of martial arts. While not overly exciting, it is a very respectable genre entry.
But as Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi becomes a different kind of success. People often forget how many great genre films Reeves has been involved with, and thanks to his limited range and slightly dopey delivery, he's an easy actor for people to underestimate. Thanks to Man of Tai Chi, we now have a perfect illustration of Reeves' talent and love of cool movies. Given the chance to direct his first film ever, he chose a martial arts movie told mostly in a foreign language and starring a guy no one's ever heard of. Pretty badass.
Reeves' work on Man of Tai Chi feels knowing and confident but also invisible. Unlike RZA's The Man With the Iron Fists, he is able to manifest his love for martial arts into a film that carries on the genre's traditions, rather than cloud them in a sea of bad directorial decisions. This would be a surprisingly assured action entry from almost any modern action director, much less a first-timer.
Reeves' first great choice is to play the film's villain rather than its hero. Tiger Chen might not be the smallest ass-kicker to grace movie screens, but with his big curtain hair framing his tiny face, it certainly seems like it, which makes it all the more exciting when he totally lets loose (something he doesn't actually do until midway through the film). Much like the rest of Man of Tai Chi, Chen shows up, performs with great technical prowess, and wins our heart despite lacking charisma enough to engender great enthusiasm. Similar to Scott Adkins in this year's exemplary Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, the quality of Chen's performance depends on how angry he is at any given moment. He's just so much better when pissed off.
The film's one potential weak point is Reeves himself, but only among those who don't understand what he's going for. As the film's shadowy, near omnipresent villain, Reeves embraces his inner cheese and goes into full-on cartoon mode. I've heard a lot of people complain about this choice. I don't know. There's a part where he simply stares into the camera and screams in anger; I think it's probably my favorite Keanu moment ever. For some, Reeves' performance is a hit on the film's quality. For me, it's the single best part.
This is a pretty simple story of a gentle, largely philosophical warrior's descent into the dark side of martial arts. For nearly the entire running time, Tiger Chen's antagonist is not Keanu Reeves so much as his own anger. Reeves' character knows this, too. The whole point of recruiting Tiger Chen into these weird underground fights is not to see his physical prowess, but to witness the destruction of his altruistic soul, the story of which he broadcasts to viewers as kind of a reality show (the logistics of this do not make much sense, I admit, but it's cool).
Reeves knows what he's doing with all this. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Man of Tai Chi is how close he sticks to his guns. At least half the film is subtitled. There is a great training scene which ends in a massive explosion of Tai Chi that I did not expect and had me cheering my ass off. The score for fight scenes at times gets embarrassingly operatic, just as it should. The fights are hosted by a broad-faced Asian woman who speaks like a robot for no reason. At one point, Chen takes on two guys while lit by nothing but a strobe light, which means the wide angles basically look like stop motion animation. About the only unfortunate touch is a thoroughly unconvincing CG car wreck. But I sort of forgave this the moment Iko Uwais showed up.
I want Keanu Reeves to continue making movies, not just because he's Keanu Reeves, but because this is such a good, old school martial arts film. There's not a drop of irony or affectation to be found, and it's earnest is refreshing, even if it supplies some with an easy excuse to discredit Reeves' talent. Man of Tai Chi isn't going to be anyone's favorite film, but it's an extremely well-shot action entry, and we need as many of those as we can get.