Man Of Tai Chi (China 2013)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 11/3/13
Director: Keanu Reeves
Action Choreography: Yuen Woo Ping
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Chen Hu, Karen Mok, Hai Yu, cameos by Simon Yam, Iko Uwais

A refreshingly old fashioned kung fu brawler that focuses on delivering the goods. Tiger Chen (Chen Hu) is a young, talented, and reckless student of Tai Chi, who catches the attention of a wealthy underground fight promoter named Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). Chen initially declines Mark's offer to fight for money, but he changes his mind when his master's temple is condemned and threatened with demolition. And so begins Chen's downward spiral into madness, death, and disgrace, as he is manipulated into becoming a killer for sport. Police captain Karen Mok has a chance of shutting the whole operation down, if only Chen would cooperate with her.

What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be! Keanu Reeves's directorial debut is a solid and subtle actioner, combining both grace and fury in understated tones. The fact that he chose to direct a Chinese film, and then cast himself as the villain is fascinating to me. His fight scenes are quite good, but compared to the rest of the cast, his execution looks clumsy and wooden, and his shots are noticeably cut short. Apart from that, the fight scenes are fantastic and the camera work is superb. Yuen Woo Ping's ground based choreography is intricate and tight, with fluid strings of complex moves captured in lovingly long shots. Chen's fights are all outstanding and he is wonderful to watch. He also emotes well, which helps sell his inner turmoil and transformation. I've never been a fan of Karen Mok, but she looks marvelous in this film and gives a strong and emotionally resonant performance as the requisite law enforcer. Good work all around. The film looks great, although some of the fights are spoiled by questionable lighting decisions and some minimal, but readily apparent wire work. I was really looking forward to seeing Iko Uwais ("The Raid: Redemption" (2011)) and Chen take each other on at the climax of the film, but their brief encounter is cut disappointingly short. Overall, a promising outing for first time director Keanu Reeves, and a solid and satisfying piece of martial arts entertainment.