“Man of Tai Chi,” Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, is not a great movie. It is, however, exactly the sort of movie that one would expect Keanu Reeves to direct and in which to cast himself, and so it attains a sort of perfection of its own. It is difficult to think that, as an artist, Reeves, the rear half of the unforgettably dumb “Bill and Ted” duo, would ever have anything that one could call a “mature style,” but in the future field of Reeves criticism, it is this term that his worshippers will use to describe “Man of Tai Chi.” This work, a martial-arts movie bildungsroman, is the crowning achievement of his career to date, in which the goofy line delivery, self-serious stares, over-the-top action sequences, and incongruously good incidental music is synthesized into a coherent and surprisingly compelling whole. As said, this is not great cinema, but it is the ultimate Keanu experience.
Chen Lin-hu (Tiger Hu Chen) is a hapless deliveryman during the week, but on the weekends he competes in martial arts tournaments as the youngest in a long line of tai chi masters. Donaka Mark, a security services mogul played by the god Reeves himself, sees greatness in him and coerces him into joining his mysterious underground fighting ring. It is necessary to point out that only Keanu Reeves would have the unpolluted rashness to make a serious, apparently unironic film about what in the West is generally considered an old folks’ exercise routine and then to turn it into a conspiracy thriller. The truly shocking part in all this glorious kitsch is that it makes for a completely absorbing film—because, in a move that belies his utterly, incomprehensibly dopey exterior, Reeves has chosen a genre that plays to his strengths and diminishes his weaknesses.
Martial arts movies are the domain of lines that would be hopelessly ludicrous in other films, lines such as “He has it in him” and “He used a soft style in a hard way”—lines that are perfectly attuned to Reeves’ bizarre intonation and habit of pausing at inappropriate intervals. Martial arts movies work in a formal space where evil stares, angst-filled screams, and perfectly pure maidens are taken as real and serious types, just like the murderous uncles and lyric lamentations in the formal space of Greek tragedy. While there is a conscious acknowledgment of the artificiality of this universe, it is accepted in its premises, and writers and directors do not have to spend time dwelling on it before moving on to the issues that they really want to explore—which is to say, they are given a basic set of tools to work with that the audience will not question. And this universe happily coincides with the one in which Keanu Reeves appears to live and work.
Independent of the formal strengths of the content of “Man of Tai Chi,” it also has some points of excellence as a film. The soundtrack is a remarkably enjoyable mix of house and hard rock bass lines that perfectly complement the action. The cinematography, under director of photography Eliot Davis, never interferes with the film’s efficacy, and some of it is legitimately gorgeous. Particularly notable is an extraordinary sequence that is set in Donaka’s opulent, color-saturated private club and culminates in a brilliantly executed fight scene under a strobe light. The sets, alternating between urban Beijing and secluded mountaintops, are well balanced and rendered with an almost painterly technique.
In short, with “Man of Tai Chi,” Keanu Reeves has come into his own. He has actually created a solid piece of cinema with some inherent artistic merit—not what one would expect from the ignominious Ted—if not quite something that can go toe-to-toe with “8½.” More interestingly, he has with some self-awareness created a work that is perfectly suited to his own qualities. In other words, Keanu Reeves has grown up, and the fruits of his maturation are indeed most excellent.
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