Keanu Reeves' directorial debut isn't a mere homage to martial arts movies; instead, he wanted to make an effective, timeless movie of the genre. Barring a few technical details, this could have been made in the genre's heyday. Reeves borrows a bit from the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, the Wachowskis, and even the great Hong Kong cinema of the 1990s. But he's not referencing those works, but incorporating them into the movie he wanted to make. Make no mistake - MAN OF TAI CHI isn't a joke.
It also helps that Reeves is having a blast playing the villain. There's not a shade of subtlety to his performance as Donaka Mark, and all that's missing is a mustache to twirl. Think Sad Keanu was a popular meme? Just wait until MAN OF TAI CHI opens wide. There's going to be gifs and screencaps galore of what Keanu does in the movie, and it's all intentional on his part. Reeves seems to be having the time of his life. The end result is that the movie is more fun than may be apparent at first glance. It's not as dark as many in the genre (although Reeves, action director Yuen Woo-Ping, and cinematographer Elliot Davis hold nothing back in the fight scenes; there's plenty of them and each are different from each other in tone and method), and the dialogue is punchy and funny. All that's missing is the bad lipsynching. The audience will find a lot to laugh at in MAN OF TAI CHI, but it won't be mean-spirited laughter; while not a spoof, MAN OF TAI CHI has a real sense of fun and levity.
Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen) studies the art of Tai Chi, and while it's not meant for fighting, as Chen's master (Yu Hai) constantly reminds him, Chen has incorporated the movement into his fighting matches. Chen moves too fast for Tai Chi; he always rushes in when patience is the more virtuous path. His fighting style is more an avoidance of being hit than hitting, and while he wins his matches, his innocent nature brings him to the attention of Donaka (Keanu Reeves), who runs underground fight clubs throughout China, for internet feeds around the world. Lose one of Donaka's matches, and the fighter is killed, and Donaka sees something special in Chen's fighting, something that can be corrupted.
Sun Jingshi (the great Karen Mok) is on Donaka's trail, but all her leads are cold. She'd like nothing better than to take Donaka down, but first she needs a way inside. Unfortunately her spies keep getting killed, and when Chen becomes a part of the underground fight club, Sun sees a way to infiltrate the organization. Chen at first joins for the money; his Tai Chi temple is in danger of being torn down, and his family needs to money as well. But the further he progresses, the more he becomes tainted by Donaka. Chen must find his true path and bring himself out of the depths of Donaka's evil.
MAN OF TAI CHI is refreshingly free of shakycam; Reeves and Yuen Woo-Ping let each match play out in glorious widescreen. I always love it when a movie like this has good spatial geography, and MAN OF TAI CHI does that better than most action movies shot today. Fact is, the cinema of Japan, South Korea, and China have always been better at this regard, and I wish Hollywood would take more pages out of their playbook in regards to action sequences. Reeves and Woo-Ping let the action build and breathe, and don't rely on parlor cinematography tricks, instead letting everything play out at its own pace for the audience. Reeves also gets good performances out of his actors; Tiger Hu Chen is about as earnest as it comes, and while he doesn't have much dialogue, that's not the reason you hire someone like him for a movie like this. He looks to be as formidable a fighter as any I've seen, and his fighting sequences are inspired and riveting. Reeves has a respect for the genre that shows in every frame.
The best thing about MAN OF TAI CHI is that it aims and hits its targets. Keanu Reeves isn't making an overly ambitious movie - he's playing in the genre that he loves, and while MAN OF TAI CHI won't change martial arts movies forever, it can stand toe-to-toe with them. I admire a movie that knows what it is, knows what it wants to do, and for the most part succeeds. There's one particular screen wipe at the end that had me cheering; some audiences might not pick up what Reeves is doing, but the fact that he did it tells me that he doesn't feel above the martial arts genre at all. He wants to make a genuinely entertaining martial arts movie for today's audiences, that while respecting the past isn't beholden to it to the point of parody, and at the same time knows how to lighten up. Can the dialogue be corny at times? Yes, but in that good way - MAN OF TAI CHI shows its audience a grand time.