Rating: 1 star out of 5
It’s official. Keanu Reeves is a robot.
A picture of Keanu Reeves smiling
How else could you explain why the actor is so devoid of emotion? From ‘Constantine’ (2005) to ‘Street Kings’ (2008), Reeves has been offering his usual frigid and morose screen presence to audiences, and in ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (2008), a menacing alien robot even out-acts him.
Now, in his latest film ‘Man of Tai Chi’ which he directed, he has gone one step further to cast a bunch of automatons along with himself.
The film follows protagonist Tiger Chen played by China-born martial-arts choreographer Tiger Chen Hu (yup, they did not even bother with a name change for the character).
He puts his taiji skills to use in an official gongfu tournament, and then gets lured into a deadly underground fight club by one Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), so as to make some money to save his master's temple.
Shadowing the men is a tenacious police officer Suen (Karen Mok), who is trying to expose the illegal operation.
Struggling to play the evil boss, Reeves spouts inane one-liners such as “Finish Him!” and “Innocent!”, and does his best attempts at snarling, but ends up making himself look cartoonish.
Former stuntman Chen, who trained under veteran martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping and who has worked with Reeves on ‘The Matrix’, tries his darndest at being the leading man but without success and without any charisma.
Lending some gravitas to the movie are Hong Kong actors Simon Yam and actress Mok. But even her earnest portrayal of a detective fails to lift the movie, while Yam has too little screen time playing her boss.
Another under-used actor is Iko Uwais from action thriller ‘The Raid: Redemption’. Viewers are robbed of a potential fiery showdown between the real-life Indonesian silat exponent and Chen.
Read also: Interview with Iko Uwais
The film’s only saving grace are the fight scenes, choreographed by Reeves’ and Chen’s fellow ‘Matrix’ alumnus Yuen.
Chen is in his element showcasing taiji techniques against a number of fighting styles, including mixed martial arts, gongfu and taekwondo – does anyone remember ‘Bloodsport’?
The other effort worth commending is Reeves’ use of the yin-yang duality as a plot device to carry the story forward, interspersing Chen’s “light” taiji in the day and “dark” exploits by night.
Still, the movie plays out like an overly long video game, probably because the script was written by video game producer Michael G Cooney. Look out for the scene that looks like it was copied wholesale from the ‘Matrix’ playbook.
The stifled acting and weak script sucker-punched Reeves’ homage to classic Hong Kong martial arts movies. The first-time director also squandered the opportunity to further develop a love story arc between Chen and potential love interest played by Chinese starlet Ye Qing.
‘Man of Tai Chi’ punts with a curious story and a moderately intriguing premise, but is ultimately limp and lacking in the emotional stakes. It does not add anything to the taiji movie canon that includes such classics as ‘Drunken Tai Chi’ (1984), ‘Tai-Chi Master’ (1993) and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2001).