Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is a bona fide curveball: a no-frills homage to Hong Kong genre filmmaking, distinguished by its lack of irony and its superbly choreographed and filmed fight scenes. It isn’t for every taste (the placeholder plotting will irk some), but for fans of wushu flicks—or action movies in general—Man Of Tai Chi presents a rare appreciation for the art of conveying movement on screen, while also serving as an impressive physical showcase for its star, stuntman Tiger Chen.
Chen plays a package deliveryman who is spotted at a martial arts tournament by stone-faced gangster Donaka Mark (Reeves) and groomed to become an underground fighting star. Running parallel to this familiar arc—that finds Chen fighting to save a temple, but alienating his master (wushu legend Yu Hai) in the process—is a subplot about a Hong Kong detective (Karen Mok) investigating Mark’s operation. It plays like an extended tribute to the cop movies of Johnnie To.
Though Man Of Tai Chi isn’t going to score any points for originality in the plot and characterization departments, it does move efficiently, jogging from one scene to the next. The sequence where Chen receives a letter from Mark is an object lesson in economy: Each shot is set a minute or so after the last, but varied angles and cuts-on-action give it a sense of cause-and-effect. What could easily seem disjointed feels fluid.
This appreciation for modest craft, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, informs the movie’s many fight scenes, which use a loping camera and clean, clear cuts to create a smooth sense of movement that still manages to register the combatants’ weight and force. Feet and fists move with the camera, and angles orient the combatants in space. Even Reeves—who has a stiff-legged, Frankenstein’s-monster-like fighting style—ends up looking like a formidable physical presence. The choreography (overseen by the great Yuen Woo-ping, who, like Chen, worked with Reeves on the Matrix movies) emphasizes the movement of the combatants’ bodies around each other and the way Chen is able to use his opponents’ momentum as an advantage. When the small, wiry actor uses an early opponent’s lunge against him, rolling so that the man gets thrown by the force of his own body, it feels real.