was Tiger Chen who really knew kung fu.
He was the stuntman responsible for Keanu Reeves’ martial arts training during
the production of the Matrix trilogy
and he made quite an impression. For his
directorial debut, Reeves introduces Chen to the world with his old school beatdown,
Man of Tai Chi (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
Chen Lin-hu is the last student of Master Yang, a great Ling Kong Tai Chi teacher. In contemporary Beijing, Tai Chi is mostly
associated with old men doing their “soft” qigong in the park. However, Chen is starting to get noticed in
the above board MMA world for his traditional “hard” practice of the ancient
discipline. He also catches the eye of
the shadowy Donaka Mark. When shady
developers conveniently threaten to condemn his master’s temple, the lowly
deliveryman becomes easy prey for Mark’s overtures.
Chen truly does not understand what he is getting involved in. However, as he notches victories in Mark’s
underground fight circuit, Chen starts to enjoy the money and adrenaline. Unfortunately, the matches make him more
aggressive, jeopardizing his relationships with his master and Qingsha, the
cute-as-a-button paralegal helping him save the temple. Nonetheless, he cannot
help noticing the stakes escalate with each bout.
Kong police captain Sun Jing-si knows where it all leads: fights to the death
broadcast over secure online connections for Mark’s exclusive clientele. Always a step behind the malevolent
mastermind, she needs an informant to take the place of the one Mark just
killed, someone like Chen, if she can find him.
Tai Chi, Reeves had the good sense to
make a film he would enjoy for his maiden directorial outing. Frankly, he shows serious action helmer
chops, staging fight sequences that are crystal clear and easy to follow. There are no barrages of close-ups here. Reeves gives us the full Fred Astaire body
shots, precisely so we can appreciate the technique of his main man, Chen.
results are convincing. While Tai Chi is not the most original narrative
under the sun, it deliberately harkens back to the gritty low budgets classics
that launched the careers of legends.
Chen maybe is not the most expressive actor you will ever see (after
all, Reeves is his thesp-mentor), but his earnest gee-whiz persona works well
in the context of the film. Oddly
enough, Reeves is a bit of a surprise here, making a dynamite villain with his
piercing stare and apparently insatiable appetite for the scenery around him.
Mok is also seriously hardnosed as Sun, bringing real supporting heft to the
film. Simon Yam adds further HK action
cred as Superintendent Wong, her suspiciously unhelpful superior. Qing Ye is not exactly a natural on-screen
either, but she still represents Chen’s lost innocence rather effectively. Yet for genre fans, nobody tops Shaolin
veteran Yu Hai, doing his thing with stately gravitas as Master Yang. Bizarrely though, The Raid’s Iko Uwais is completely wasted in a mere tease of a
Reeves might not be Clint Eastwood’s successor
as the next great actor-director, but Tai
Chi is a pretty slick calling card. If
need be, he should easily find a second career as a straight-to-DVD action
director, which is considerably higher praise than it sounds (those cats
actually have to be good). Likewise,
Chen might not be the next Daniel Day-Lewis, but watching him kicking butt is
hugely entertaining. Way better than you
think, Man of Tai Chi is recommended
for martial arts fans and Karen Mok admirers when it opens this Friday (11/1)
in New York.
Labels: Karen Mok, Keanu Reeves, Martial arts cinema, Simon Yam, Tiger Chen