“FINISH HIM!” The first words in Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi”, should be a familiar imperative to dudes of a certain age, both a Pavlovian cue to reprise the button-mashing mayhem of “Mortal Kombat” games and a marker for appropriate expectations of martial bloodshed and overall silliness to come.
Tiger Chen (played by, well, Tiger Chen) is a passive delivery man whose stressful day-to-day interactions are channeled into the honorable practice of tai chi in his spare time. Tiger knows he has the power to assert himself, and though his master (Yu Hai) forbids such violence, a tempting offer from mysterious security mogul Donaka Mark (Reeves) sees our hero forced to use “soft skills in a hard way” in a last-ditch effort to save their temple from bureaucratic bullies. Just as heroes and villains in classic Westerns would don white and black hats respectively, the good and bad guys here are often clad in white and black shirts as they spar in spare rooms under Donaka’s watchful eye.
Tracing generously over the outline of kung-fu classics like “Enter the Dragon,” Michael Cooney’s script rarely ever complicates matters beyond Tiger’s torn conscience and a boilerplate B-plot in which a hardened Hong Kong cop (Karen Mok) tries to bust our villain's underground Beijing fight racket and is discouraged from pursuing Tiger as a lead after her last informant turned up dead. However, as a director, Reeves demonstrates a consistent eye for coolly dynamic compositions and the patience to honor the elegant, exciting fight choreography of fellow “Matrix” alum Yuen Wo-ping. After establishing Donaka’s lifestyle as a sleek leather-and-steel counterpoint to the weary master’s ramshackle temple, the fight scenes proceed to unfold against a welcome variety of backdrops and with an increasing amount of flair. (Raise your hand if you like strobe lights!)
While the action scenes are plentiful and often powerful, the familiar hand-wringing between bouts rests equally on Chen’s shoulders, and beyond being a former “Matrix” stunt double, he brings the same blandly noble weight to dramatic exchanges that American audiences might normally associate with Keanu himself. As for our sharp-dressed antagonist, Reeves clearly embraces the constant sneer and laughably blunt assessments of his character (upon first seeing Tiger in action on TV, Donaka purrs “Innocent” to no one in particular; later, he will hiss directly at the camera).
Heavier on intentional comic relief and even suggestively supernatural when the occasion calls for it, the third act marks a commendably goofy sea change in an otherwise agreeably average throwback. Early on, a character pithily remarks how “you tai chi guys have an expression for everything.” By the end, prepare to learn how that expression is, rather emphatically, “You owe me a life!”
SCORE: 6.8 / 10
“Man of Tai Chi” is now playing in theaters, and is also available on iTunes and VOD.