Let’s not bury the lede here: Around the 57-minute mark of “Man of Tai Chi,” Keanu Reeves hisses like a dragon, mouth agape, straight into the camera, framed in close-up. If you can’t handle the intense lunacy of this moment, never add “Man of Tai Chi” to your Netflix list, never buy it on VOD, never rent it from Redbox to show to the group of eight-year-old boys you are babysitting and trying to impress, because “Man of Tai Chi” deserves respect.
The movie shouldn’t work. The various strands that come together to inform the “plot” include, but are not necessarily limited to: a sanctioned, national marital arts tournament; an underground martial arts fight club; political intrigue; police procedural; government bureaucracy; a Tai Chi training montage; and a will they/won’t they relationship. The main character’s name is Tiger Chen, who is played by martial arts expert Tiger Chen. Keanu Reeves not only plays the main antagonist, a corporate security tycoon who is not so subtly acting as a symbolic devil, but also directs the movie, his debut feature. Not to mention, “Man of Tai Chi” deals in a grammar that is a hybrid of kung fu movies and reality TV. Nothing about this film spelled out in such specific and logical terms seems to suggest that the result would be coherent or enjoyable. Yet, as directed by Reeves, “Man of Tai Chi” comes together to form an absolutely bonkers, energetic, and entertaining 100 minutes that grabs in you a stranglehold and shatters and cackles at the notion of traditional critical analysis.
Tiger Chen—the actor, who worked as part of the stunt team for “The Matrix” trilogy—brings a vibrant kineticism to the serenity inherent to Tai Chi. His fight choreography works much like a Tarantino film, lifting bits and pieces of the artist’s favorite or formative movies and turning them on their head to allow for a multi-leveled dissection of the various martial arts set-pieces. There are references to the prop-based slapstick of Jackie Chan and the brash, less-is-more aesthetic of Bruce Lee, and even a light garnishing of the wirework of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” for which Chen also served on the stunt team.
Reeves directs the movie as serviceably as you would expect of someone who has been successful within the Hollywood machine as improbably long as he has. However, it is clear that after working with such auteurs as Kathryn Bigelow and the Wachowskis that something of note has rubbed off on Reeves. The fight sequences here possess an evident style that calls attention to itself after continued scrutiny. Reeves moves the camera—primarily Steadicam, choosing to mostly excise the eyeroll-inducing cliché of shaky-cam—with a fluidity that mimics the poise of Tai Chi at the start and gradually amps up its speed and movement as Tiger begins to succumb to the darkness of this underground league of warriors.
Do not be deceived by the above praise. While “Man of Tai Chi” is a movie that earns the position of being spoken of in complimentary terms, it cannot be overstated how silly this movie is. Reeves’ character spits out lines like “Tai Chi. That’s different.” with profound conviction. Before his final fight, Tiger watches a montage of his life’s story that looks to be made by a junior high student with iMovie, trying so hard for gravitas and failing so spectacularly that it is endearing. There’s a cute little epilogue that belongs in an entirely different movie. What separates the (somewhat) intentional wackiness of “Man of Tai Chi” from something like the “Machete” movies is that it is born from an outright love and adoration for the genre it is lampooning rather than a need to poke fun and have a 90-minute conversation with its audience wherein it beats the viewer over the head repeatedly with proof of how inane a B-movie can be.
The movie that “Man of Tai Chi” most resembles, if any, is 2012’s “The Man with the Iron Fists.” First-time directors helm both films, and both were created and worked on by people who have nothing but respect and esteem for kung fu flicks. Yet where “Iron Fists” is only fitfully enjoyable, “Tai Chi” is pure fun from the word go. Watch it because you want to be entertained, and because you want to make the sound of Keanu Reeves hissing your new text tone.
“Man of Tai Chi” is currently available to stream on Netflix.