To celebrate the latest John Wick film being out, John Wick 3: Parabellum, I decided to take a look at one of my favorite Keanu Reeves films of recent memory (that isn’t John Wick, of course). Back in 2013, I was very excited when Man of Tai Chi was screened at a local theatre and I got a chance to see it. Man of Tai Chi is a martial arts flick that hit all the familiar story beats, it was also a hit with the 6 friends I brought along with me (I had some coupons to use up).
Going back and looking up which year the film came out, I was amused at how much time had passed. It seemed, with the first John Wick movie that came out in 2014, Keanu Reeves hadn’t wasted any time at all, working away. And why would he? Even then, he was doing what he loved-acting, especially in martial arts films. And directing, in this case. Yes, Man of Tai Chi is both directed by and starring Keanu Reeves. It also stars one of his good friends he met on the set of the Matrix-the stuntman Tiger Chen.
Even at a time when I knew relatively little about Tiger Chen, in 2013, I couldn’t help but be amazed by his martial arts prowess. And looking at what Chen has done in the last 20 years since working on the Matrix, like Kill Bill: Vol. 1 or Triple Threat, he hasn’t slowed down, like Reeves. I don’t know if he learned Tai Chi just for this role or if it was something that was always part of his repertoire, but he’s very versatile. Tiger Chen actually grew up quite proficient in a number of martial arts, but notably in Kung Fu.
Man of Tai Chi doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with its story but is a serviceable action flick in its execution. HKPD officer Sun-Jing Shi (Karen Mok, Black Mask, Twins Effect) believes she has discovered an underground fighting ring and is obsessed with shutting it down. Fighters for the mysterious billionaire Donaka Mark, creator of the security firm Security System Alliance, are well-paid for winning matches. But, they are quickly dispatched if they are not. The fight comes to a head with the winner reluctant to kill the other participant.
Then, a voice crackles over the PA system, urging the winner to kill the loser and “finish him”. It all feels a bit like Mortal Kombat. Suddenly, a mysterious man in a black mask and a suit comes out and twists the loser’s neck. The winner hardly has time to come to grips with their own failure in their locker room. As they do, the well-dressed Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves, John Wick 3: Parabellum) strides into the room, chastises the winner, and then guts them. His most recent “winner” was a mole for the HKPD, and Officer Shi’s latest lead has just fallen through again. She has the smallest inkling that, because of Mark’s great financial assets and business ventures, something bigger is going on beneath the surface. Shi gets kicked off the case by her captain, but she’s not so easily dissuaded.
Meanwhile, ‘Tiger’ Chen Lin-Hu, (Tiger Chen, Triple Threat) is a young man in his twenties who leads a simple, somewhat impoverished life. He lives alone in a tiny studio apartment, drives a beater of a car, and works as a courier. Tiger tries to be a dutiful son to his parents, respecting and honoring them as children do. He also, most importantly, learns Tai Chi at a real temple in the Chinese countryside from a real Tai Chi Master, Master Yang (Yu Hai, Birth of the Dragon).
Tiger participates in tournaments, notably the Wulin competition, representing his Master and putting his teachings into practice. At these tournaments, any participant can bring their style of martial arts to use. Tiger is determined to win each match with Tai Chi, considered to be the gentlest, and considered by some to not really be a martial art. Well, turns out, he’s devastatingly good. Tiger wins matches and accepts praise from fans innocently and humbly.
Mark watches the Wulin competition and sees Tiger fighting. He is intrigued by the prospect of a new fighter to corrupt. He sends Tiger a job offer at his Security System Alliance (SSA) firm, and arranges an escort to bring Tiger to the “interview”. Tiger flies to Hong Kong to the SSA for the job interview after getting fed up with his courier job. He discovers that the “interview” is combat. Mark’s people put Tiger in a room with another martial artist so they can fight to survive. Soon after the fight has concluded, and Tiger is unsurprisingly the winner, Mark makes his offer: work for him, and the work will provide untold wealth. Tiger refuses because he believes fighting for money goes against his honor and takes his leave.
Upon arrival back home, Tiger goes to the temple to visit his Master, where he encounters land officials. These land officials have given Master Yang an eviction notice, stating that the temple is unsafe to live in. Tiger goes to get help from Qing Sha, a paralegal friend he’s made on his courier’s route. Qing Sha (Qing Ye) finds out that the temple can be saved, through historic preservation and government protection. But the land officials have issued an ultimatum to Master Yang-clean up the temple site within a month’s time, or the temple is being knocked down for real estate development. Suddenly, Tiger is motivated to make money again…
It’s nice to see Tiger Chen starring in this movie, he definitely has a novel approach to his characters. Between the efficient camerawork of Elliot Davis and Keanu Reeves’ directing, the traditional martial arts myth has new life breathed into it. That, with Chen’s great acting and terrific showing off of martial arts, makes Man Of Tai Chi efficiently paced.
Given that Chen is a teacher of Keanu Reeves in martial arts, I’m sure they will be in show business together for many more years. And I hope Chen gets many more gigs. He has an energy and a vigor to his acting and martial arts that are hard to miss. And his prolific and compounding experience as a martial arts movie star is growing. Man of Tai Chi is full of life. It’s just one of those movies that every martial arts enthusiast should see. (Along with Bushido Man, another fun martial arts movie from 2013, but that’s another review.)
Man Of Tai Chi is available on streaming services, Blu Ray and DVD.