Most press screenings are pretty stodgy as far as audience reaction goes, even for comedies. When people laugh, it’s often the very polite and quiet kind — almost private — a synonym for, “Oh my, how absolutely drôle.” When watching Man of Tai Chi, Keanu Reeves’ feature film directorial debut, such propriety cannot hold.
I was sitting between two friends who are also film critics, Steve Kopian and Peter Gutierrez, and it felt like being at the back of the classroom. As the film progressed, my face hurt from grinning so much. I snorted out several stifled laughs at the silly moments. Both Steve and Peter were also giggling at Reeves’ stilted performance and goofy lines.
Then it finally happened. There’s a close-up of Keanu Reeves seething with hate. He stares directly into the audience for a few seconds, which is funny enough. And then he roars like a lion. The room erupted, and I laughed so hard I jolted forward in my seat.
I’m still not sure if we were all laughing with Man of Tai Chi or at Man of Tai Chi, but I think if you go into the film with the right mindset, it doesn’t matter which.
Man of Tai Chi
Director: Keanu Reeves
Release Date: July 5, 2013 (China); September 27, 2013 (VOD); November 1, 2013 (US Theatrical)
Man of Tai Chi feels like it could have been made by The Cannon Group, the production company best known for films like American Ninja, Delta Force, Invasion USA, or it’s bona fide masterpiece of excess, Death Wish 3. Everything about the movie is so over-the-top and yet deathly serious, like a melodrama concocted by kids of the home video generation while playing with their action figures. This story is straight out of playtime. A good guy martial artist (Tiger Chen) joins an underground fight club run by a bad guy (Keanu Reeves) so he can save his master’s temple. Fight!
Come to think of it, both Reeves and Chen have the same stiffness and expressionless demeanor of an action figure. It’s as if Reeves was able to find his double, the good guy yang to his bad guy yin.
As a villain, Reeves seems to relish the role, though he’s hard to read here, more so than usual. He’s always been the butt of jokes for his flat deliveries and blank stares, and I couldn’t tell if he was consciously playing up these mannerisms. Maybe it’s self-parody, maybe it’s not, but when Reeves says, “You owe me a life!” several times, it’s hard not to laugh at the goofiness of the language or the delivery. And yet it sounds cool in theory as a taunt. Or consider the lion roar that had the room in hysterics. Was that the curve of a smile I saw in his lips just before he belted it out? Was that his character’s deviousness manifesting in a subtle twitch of the face? Was it an indication that Reeves thought it was goofy too? Did they do 20 takes and that was the best one?
Oh, to have been on the set that day.
As a filmmaker, Reeves is serviceable for the material, sort of like a more polished version of Menahem Golan of the Cannon Group. Unfortunately, more wasn’t done with the film’s motion-controlled camera rig. The fights were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, and they’re shot well enough, but without the dynamism that the initial proof-of-concept video suggested. What I actually noticed most about these particular fights was a kind of broken rhythm. There’s usually a kind of consistent beat to a the fights in most martial arts films, but in Man of Tai Chi, a consistent beat is avoided. That’s not a good or bad thing necessarily, just something I noticed. Many spots in the fights are quite well done, but this rhythmic difference made the film feel western in its approach, if that distinction makes sense.
Underlying the Cannon Group feel is an earnest story about the corruption of innocence and the struggle for redemption through the alignment of good and evil into an inseparable oneness at harmony with itself. Yes, philosophically, Man of Tai Chi is a totally gnarly Taoist movie more than it is an underground fight club movie. (In pseudo-Taoist fashion, the opposite statement is true as well. Whoa.) Chen deals with numerous concerns about balance in life, what honor means, and the compromises one makes simply to do what is right at the time.
Man of Tai Chi also nods at the differences between the two kinds of martial arts practiced in China today: tournament/sports martial arts and the spiritual/traditional side of martial arts. There’s also history and progress, youth and age, lethality and grace, and the frustration of holding a day job (our hero is a delivery man, and a really crappy one) while pursuing your true passion in life. Amid all this serious stuff, there’s an announcer side character who delivers her lines like she’s trying to turn in a bad performance, and there’s a third-banana bad guy who has the personality of a teenager from the mid-to-late 90s.
It’s all so baffling — so brilliantly, stunningly baffling. Why did I hold back my laughter for so long?
Compounding all the weirdness is a secondary narrative that involves Karen Mok and Simon Yam, two veteran Hong Kong actors who are given little to do. Mok’s a detective trying to take down Reeves’ fighting ring and Yam is her superior who, like all movie bosses, questions her motives and her methods. He’s got a point. To do covert surveillance on Reeves, Mok parks across the street from him and his entourage and just kind of gawks at them from the driver’s seat. The Mok/Yam portion of the story was likely included to help the film’s box office in China. If it was cut from the movie, Man of Tai Chi would have lost nothing save for more strangeness.
All the real fun in Man of Tai Chi is with Reeves and Chen. Opponents pop up from out of nowhere in otherwise empty rooms, and there’s no in-story explanation why. Chen’s style of Tai Chi becomes more aggressive, even in the professional tournaments he participates in. The only thing missing from Chen’s shift from good to bad is a Spider-Man 3-style montage with James Brown as a backing track. (At least there’s a title card that appears on the screen that reads “Dark Tai Chi Rises.” Not a joke.) The big reveal concerning the nature of the underground fight club is hilarious as well, but in that brilliant yet baffling way that makes Man of Tai Chi so enjoyable.
“Enjoyable” is the key word because Man of Tai Chi is objectively not very good. In fact, it’s sort of a mess, but it’s the sort of mess I wouldn’t mind watching in a room full of friends who have a soft spot for schlock, or in a packed movie theater that serves booze. What else can be said about a movie that closes many of its scenes with surging industrial/techno right out of the 90s before a smash cut into silence? Or a film that is so thematically on-the-nose that it uses an animated yin-yang as a scene transition? As you probably guessed, they do this about as artfully as a PowerPoint presentation. I wouldn’t want it any other way.