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Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) is the wealthy owner of a Beijing underground fight club who recruits a humble Tai Chi student, Tiger Chen (…Tiger Chen), to his closed-circuit battles. But, when the young man is seduced by money and power, it triggers a war between the Hong Kong police, the world's deadliest combatants, and a peaceful spiritual discipline turned lethal new fighting style. (From RADiUS-TWC’s official synopsis)

 Man of Tai Chi
After approximately five years of pre-production preparation, Keanu Reeves has made his directorial debut. I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for such a thing, but here it. Like many debut pictures, Man of Tai Chi is something of a proof of concept/talent experiment. It’s less of a passion project and more of a well-executed independent production that allows Reeves to practice the lessons he has been learning as an actor since he was a child. I suppose one could even call it a student film. The most obvious influence would be his work with the Wachowski siblings on the Matrix trilogy, specifically its martial arts choreography and Eastern philosophy. With the Wachowski’s in mind, it’s easy to compare Man of Tai Chi to Bound. Both films pay homage to genre filmmaking with limited locations, a smaller cast, and stylish camera work. The major difference is Bound’s success depended on the quality of its screenplay as much as its performances and polished imagery, whereas Man of Tai Chi is an unmistakable practice in style over substance. And that’s okay.

The screenplay is built almost exclusively around finding excuses for Tiger Chen to demonstrate his considerable skill. It was penned by Michael G. Cooney, whose other credits include the English-language adaptations of video games, like Resident Evil 6 and Devil May Cry 4. With a distinction like that, Cooney’s streamlined, video game-like narrative – complete with expositional ‘cut-scenes’ and broad, declarative dialogue – is completely expected and, in its way, sort of perfect for the project. Chen is basically moving through an increasingly difficult series of fights; fights that are broken down like levels in Street Fighter (there are even ‘training levels’). In fact, the movie is best when its narrative is at its most basic. Chen’s increasing brutality and loss of self is eloquently told via the martial arts scenes and the archetypal characters help Reeves tell his story at an efficient pace. Almost everything involving Karen Mok and the other police/detectives feels like purposeless filler and stretches the runtime at least 15 minutes too far.

 Man of Tai Chi
Because the script serves the action, Man of Tai Chi’s value is measured by its wu xia sequences. Reeves made his best and most important choice when he hired Yuen Woo-Ping – the best of the best – as his action director. Yuen brought along his long-standing cadre of choreographers and stunt coordinators, basically ensuring that Man of Tai Chi is just as much his film as Reeves’, at least whenever there’s action on screen. This is not a slight on Reeves at all, since only an idiot would hire Yuen without employing his full skills as a wu xia movie master. Yuen and Reeves make sure the fights are diverse in terms of fighting styles, sequence themes, and location types. The video game aesthetic (arguably, video games themselves already stole this pattern from Bruce Lee’s Game of Death) dictates that the stakes are heightened with each battle, which keeps things from growing stale. The camera is occasionally positioned too closely to the performers to truly appreciate their physical prowess, but Reeves avoids over-cutting the fisticuffs and the operators find ways to keep the camera mobile without resorting to random, eye-jarring shakycam.

Chen is not the most skilled or charismatic actor and neither are most of the characters hired to battle him onscreen, but he has a sweet nature that is vital to the drama that occurs as he turns into a bad person. Reeves cast himself against type very well as the film’s villain. I suppose there’s a joke in there somewhere about it taking a cast of stunt doubles and non-actor martial artists to make Reeves look like a dynamic performer. Simon Yam also does a typically fine job, but is barely on camera, while Karen Mok, the other major cop character, is left to make disapproving faces at everyone.

 Man of Tai Chi

Video


Some readers may know that, around the time Reeves was making Man of Tai Chi (and 47 Ronin, which he did not direct), he also produced and starred in a documentary that compared traditional film to digital entitled Side by Side. It’s a very good primer on the subject and ends without any specific revelation that one process is definitively better than the other. But Side by Side is sure to tout the advantages of digital, so it’s not a surprise that Man of Tai Chi was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras. The film is presented here in crisp 2.40:1, 1080p HD video. Reeves and cinematographer Elliot Davis utilize the Alexa’s subtle colour ranges to create a delicate level of detail. The darker environments feature some higher contrast edges, but there’s a slightly fluorescent tint to most scenes that isn’t very supportive of super-sharp textures. I’m assuming that a standard definition transfer would appear flat, but this HD version has tightly separated shapes and patterns that create depth. The film’s palette is relatively eclectic – the city streets are cool and soft during the day, rich and yellowed (occasionally with neon highlights), the countryside temple is warm and brown (with more expressive textures), and a lot of film takes place in monochromatic ‘battle cubes’ where only the flare of the costumes stand out. The centerpiece battle where Chen unleashes his brutality on two fighters is the most opulent sequence and the most overwhelming in terms of vibrancy. There are some banding effects, especially throughout the more softly blended backgrounds, and minor digital noise issues in the low-lit (but not entirely dark) sequences, but no major macro-blocking or halo problems to report.

 Man of Tai Chi

Audio


Like many other modestly budgeted films, Man of Tai Chi covers its monetary limitations with aggressive and dynamic sound design. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very big and very loud. The fight sequences are the standouts, naturally, featuring swishing limbs and LFE-cracking impact noises. The cop subplot also allows for some punchy, directionally-enhanced gunshots and a crunchy, swirling car crash. Reeves appears to prefer dry environments, so ambience is often represented by music, but there are plenty of immersive entities, like (mostly unspecified) crowd and vehicle noise. The dialogue track is natural and normalized (perhaps with a little too much bass), except Reeves, who occasionally sounds omnipotent and echoy, seemingly to make his character seem larger than life. Chan Kwong Wing, who is rapidly becoming one of China’s most prolific film composers, utilizes just about every musical genre in the playbook, mixing traditional Asian instrumentations with pop sensibilities, rock guitars, jazzy horns, and techno drum beats. The best entries reminded me of the Chemical Brothers’ Hanna score. Wing’s music is, quite often, the most aggressive aural element, especially in transitional sequences.

 Man of Tai Chi

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary featuring Reeves and Chen. This is an incredibly low-energy track with long, broad bits of silence and a lot of awkward stumbling for something to say. Reeves is good at crediting his cast/crew and Chen is always happy to back up his statements with a ‘yeah,’ but that’s really about it. It gets so bad that they just start echoing each other’s words. I skipped around in a desperate search for something interesting to no avail. Almost everything said can be found on the film’s imdb.com page. This is followed by an EPK (7:50, HD) made up of footage from behind the scenes, sequences from the film, and awkward interviews with Reeves, Chen, and cinematographer Elliot Davis.

 Man of Tai Chi

Overall


Man of Tai Chi isn’t quite a movie – it’s more like Keanu Reeves’ entertaining, action-packed, and occasionally beautiful show-reel. It’s proof he can tell a visual story and shoot a series of dynamic martial arts sequences. It also gives choreographer extraordinaire Yuen Woo-Ping and his stunt team a chance to shine. I just hope that the next time Reeves and Yuen work together they have a more involving script to work from. This Blu-ray has some minor banding issues and a terrible commentary track, but otherwise looks and sounds good enough to make most viewers happy.

 Man of Tai Chi
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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