The history between this film’s two main actors goes back a fair way. Star Tiger Chen met Keanu Reeves while doing stunt work on The Matrix films and the two remain buddies, with Tiger briefly showing up in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum to get a cringeworthy knife in the eyeball. The script for Man of Tai Chi apparently kicked around for years until eventually being made and we should be glad it did. 2013 was the beginning of the Keanu Reeves action renaissance, which is still ongoing with both another John Wick and Matrix film in gestation.
Reeves has some Chinese heritage in his background and it’s interesting to see Asian influences pop up throughout his filmography. Also releasing in 2013 was the fantasy-infused version of Japanese epic The 47 Ronin, in which Reeves starred, and this year he had a surprising cameo in Asian-American rom-com Always Be My Maybe. Further back there’s the wu xia and bullet ballet inspired action in The Matrix and his flight from Takeshi Kitano and yakuza thugs in Johnny Mnemonic. And way back in 1986, when the Golden Harvest film studio could bankroll Hong Kong blockbusters like Millionaires Express, they also financed a Canadian co-production called Flying, featuring Reeves in an early role. It’s stretching to see that as significant, but there’s a certain sense of coming full circle a quarter century later with Man of Tai Chi, a Chinese/American co-production and the first film for Reeves as director.
Proceedings kick off with focused and fierce police inspector Jing Si (Karen Mok), leading a sting on an underground fighting ring she knows, but can’t prove, is being run by security company mogul Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves). The operation’s a bust, and her condescending superior Superintendent Wong (Simon Yam) shuts down the case. With that background in place it’s time to meet our main man Tiger.
We first see Tiger Chen (the character) holding a stance in the dawn dimness of his flat. He is the sole successor of Ling Kong Tai Chi and apprenticed to Master Yang (Yu Hai) who trains him at a temple in the hills outside the city. Tiger dreams of bringing the benefits of tai chi to the general public and has entered a martial arts championship to showcase the style. On the more mundane side of life, he works as a delivery driver and practises English listening to the radio in his car. He’s a decent dude, but not without his flaws. Watching and waiting to exploit those flaws is Donaka Mark, who aims to draw this unique fighter into his web of underground fights.
When Tiger first goes to train at the hillside temple it feels like stepping back in time to watch a kung fu classic. Even the title Man of Tai Chi feels willfully old school, hearkening back to film being a showcase for fighting forms. It’s a martial arts flick through and through, just transitioned to a modern setting and absolutely aware of the sandbox it’s playing in. Beijing hosts the clean and rule-abiding martial arts championship. The underground, unregulated fights take place in Hong Kong, which feels like a politically shrewd decision. The mainland doesn’t escape all criticism though. The spectre of red tape is summoned to apply a different kind of pressure on Tiger and force his hand. Luckily he finds an ally in the public service in Ching Sha (Ye Qing) who helps him navigate the rules of that world.
With tai chi being the martial arts mainstay of the film, there’s as much focus on the internal as the external, which is expressed through the choreography. Master Yang cautions Tiger to be aware of the choices he makes and where they may lead him, down paths of either power or harmony. Yu Hai has played a few wise masters in his time, including — not coincidentally — in Tai Chi Master.
Also present from that film is its director Yuen Woo Ping, here serving as action director. It’s classy work; the choreography is sharp and the editing smooth. It’s smartly updated for the modern day too, mixing occasional subtly wire-assisted leaps with grounded grappling and throws, an element probably attributable to MMA action director Chad Stahelski, who would go on to co-direct John Wick and solely direct that series’ next two chapters, all of which were stuffed full of that style of hand-to-hand action. Reeves has been gathering together quite the skilled action unit over the years.
The fights are mostly contained one-on-one affairs, but the story told through them pulls the audience in. Tiger faces a variety of opponents and the tai chi focus shows off a lot of unusual open hand techniques, gradually morphing to more closed fist striking as Tiger becomes more brutal. Blood is used sparingly, and while that reduces the realism it makes for a shock when it is shed. Many of the early battles take place on a competition mat or enclosed grey rooms, so when Tiger finds himself in the spotlight on a gaudy stage it emphasises the stakes being raised. There is one deflating moment near the end where an Indonesian fighter played by Iko Uwais (The Raid) faces up to Tiger. It’s a fizzer. The way this scene goes down is dramatically appropriate, but teasing such a mouth-watering match-up is just cruel. (Check out Triple Threat to see the two get into some proper biffo.) The overall arc through all these fights and the film as a whole is the tension of watching how far Tiger will slide into evil and whether he will turn back. It’s like a darker take on The Truman Show, with all the surveillance employed to track Tiger, courtesy of Mark’s security company, instilling unease throughout.
It’s a strong performance from Tiger Chen (the actor). Save for a brief moment that opens the film he’s in all the fights, which is mighty impressive. His wiry physique reminds me of Yuen Wah (Eastern Condors) and like that fine physical performer Tiger would have no trouble doubling for Bruce Lee, had the two been contemporaries. He also shoulders the bulk of the drama and in an unassuming way he carries the film well. As the villain, Keanu Reeves is his enigmatic self — terse for the most part, with lots of glaring and lip curling to impart his sinister intent. Karen Mok’s police inspector gets sidelined early on, an occasional scene of her sitting at her desk or in her car looking frustrated a reminder she exists until it’s time for her plot to dovetail with the rest of the story.
The resolution to Tiger’s journey is satisfying without disregarding the strife that has preceded it. There’s a definite sense of his decisions having a cost. We’re given ample time to reflect as the credits cascade slowly past while the camera completes a serene sweep of the city skyline. Time for a few deep breaths. And finally, again, coming full circle.