Does it matter?
Keanu Reeves serves up a kung fu parable of temptation and corruption that will leave you both baffled and tickled.
IF there is one compliment that can be paid to Keanu Reeves’ directing debut, it’s that Man Of Tai Chi is ambitious.
This fight flick with Zen undertones does more than just serve up impressive duels between fighters of numerous different styles.
It dives into the very soul of its protagonist, tai chi exponent Tiger Chen (Chen Hu), to examine the internal conflict between staying true to his master’s teachings and struggling to get by in a difficult world.
The film then becomes something of a parable; you could replace its central component of martial arts with any spiritual or philosophical element, and the core and objective of its “be true to your faith/discipline/self” message would be no less different.
In every struggle between the ideal and material realms, a tempter must appear. Here, that role is taken on by director Reeves himself, as an enigmatic tycoon who operates an underground fight club.
The curiously named Donaka Mark, as played by Reeves, is clearly motivated by something other than profit in doing what he does; indeed, a declaration he makes to Tiger late in the film clearly identifies him as the Lucifer of this particular cautionary tale.
Throughout the movie, Donaka’s oft-repeated response to Tiger’s questions, as the latter gets drawn deeper into the snare of corruption, is (imagine it delivered with Reeves’ trademark mono-expression) “Does it matter?” – a question that must ultimately be asked of this film itself, given its lofty aspirations. See below for the answer.
Man Of Tai Chi does some things well. The early scenes between Tiger and his sifu (Yu Hai) have a nice tranquillity about them, and the hero’s earnest efforts to juggle his thankless job (as a courier) with his participation in a martial arts tournament have that winning local hero/Karate Kid vibe.
When Donaka comes into Tiger’s life, the pace of the action picks up – and it’s also where the film’s problems begin.
With each successive fight-club bout, Donaka demands more of his fighter; Tiger’s internal struggles intensify and neither actor is up to delivering the nuances required of both tempter and tempted.
They do well enough in the action scenes, but Man Of Tai Chi wants so much to make its dramatic moments count for something, to be more than just filler. On that score, neither man has the range needed to be convincing. (And as one colleague put it, it’s also hard to root for a hero with hair like that.)
For Reeves, a successful “turning to the Dark Side” of his prey is greeted with an inexplicable roar that’s halfway between a Hulk-out and getting scalding hot coffee poured in your lap.
And Tiger’s fall from grace is accompanied, oddly enough, by a loss of gracefulness in his fighting style – the elegance of tai chi disappears behind a brawler’s blur of flailing fists and feet. This is supposed to be an “evolution of his own style”, as the various fight pundits in the film inform us. Nuh-uh.
Once Tiger’s inevitable descent begins, the film also gets rushed and confused. Reeves really needed to keep a better grip on continuity and flow here, rather than have the story suddenly lurch forward whenever convenient, without stopping to think if it wouldn’t leave viewers a little puzzled.
What should have been the film’s big-money duel, a fight between the hero and The Raid’s amazing Iko Uwais, is squandered; I didn’t know whether to groan in disappointment, or salute Reeves and screenwriter Michael G. Cooney for having the boldness to steer away from it like they did.
Yes, Man Of Tai Chi will have you in two minds for a lot of its running time. Like its central character, it also seems to be in conflict with itself, constantly fighting the urge to let things play out according to martial arts movie convention.
And sometimes, it does, in the predictable way Tiger’s (sanctioned) fights progress; and when it throws in incidental types who are there just to fill up the credit roll. Veterans Karen Mok and Simon Yam are wasted as stock police officers out to bust Donaka’s illegal operation (well to be precise, she is, he isn’t), as their characters could have been dropped without affecting the film at all. Others – like one unemotional, expressionless female fight announcer – seem to be there just for (unintentional) comic relief.
So, getting back to the question posed earlier: maddeningly unsatisfying as Man Of Tai Chi is, it does matter a little, because it is a rarity.
The closest thing to it in spirit, as far as I can figure, is the 1978 David Carradine MMA (mystical martial arts) movie Circle Of Iron (a.k.a. The Silent Flute), based on a script by Bruce Lee.
While that cheese-fest ended with its hero attaining some degree of enlightenment at least, I’m not really sure what Tiger’s transformation is supposed to be; unless the filmmakers figured the whole purpose of his journey was to have him become able to channel chi with deadly force.
It would have been more appropriate, and in keeping with the spirit (if not the execution) of this film, to show that repentance and redemption are within reach even for the vilest of bad men, such as Donaka. But, erm, I guess it’s already been done – remember this little movie called Kung Fu Hustle?