Grace, power in ‘Tai Chi’

Carljoe Javier
Laughable story, lazy writing in Keanu Reeves' directorial debut. But what action!

 CHOREOGRAPHY. The film's characters develop not by acting but fighting. Photo from the movie's Facebook page.

MANILA, Philippines – “Tai Chi; that’s different,” is a phrase that a number of characters utter through the film. Indeed, we know Tai Chi as something used more for exercise and meditation than combat.

There’s a Tai Chi group of mostly older people who practice in places like Quezon Memorial Circle, and you wouldn’t think of them kicking ass anytime soon. But the beautiful flowing movements of the form make for something great to look at, especially when performed with the speed and power shown in “Man of Tai Chi.”

Watch the trailer here:

The problem is that while the martial art being showcased is different, so much of this movie falls into cliche and tired tropes.

Don’t get me wrong, I can get into a film falling into the motions of its genre. At times I even gave this film credit as paying homage to classic Kung Fu flicks from the 70s with its shots and its often cheesy dialogue and plot points. But it didn’t do enough to differentiate or improve on that formula. 

First time director Keanu Reeves aims to impress. There are quite a number of snazzy shots, some directorial work with camera tricks that draw attention and betray flair. Reeves does a very good job in capturing the action in this film. 

If you’re going in for anything here, it’s the action, and on that end it delivers for the most part. Leading man Tiger Hu Chen delivers the goods in a number of exciting scenes. You watch his fighting style evolve and become more brutal. This isn’t a movie where we watch the characters develop through subtle acting, but through fighting. To that end he does a good job, and we see him face a variety of fighters employing various styles. 

The martial arts choreography is brilliant, and it is captured to show us all of the power and grace at play. If you’re looking for martial arts action, this is a good place to go. There are some scenes when it gets overdone, though, like one that incorporates disco-clubbing lights that at first have great effect, but after a while feel like a gimmick. Still, the camera work is steady and we get to see some great fights. 

The problem is SPOILER ALERT when director Reeves, who also plays the lead baddie, decides to come in and fight. The climactic battle between him and Tiger is, well, anti-climactic. Reeves shows his age here, as he’s much slower and can’t pull off any of the impressive moves that fighters earlier in the film showed. What’s worse is that while most of the fights seem natural and realistic, the final battle shows the most wire work and feels the most artificial. It just doesn’t deliver, especially considering how good the action was in earlier scenes. END SPOILER ALERT

Can’t really give Reeves much credit for acting here, either. He’s stuck saying things like, “Finish him,” or “You owe me a life,” with what he hopes is viciousness, but isn’t really.

Then again, the script doesn’t give us much to work with. There’s a lot of lazy writing, characters repeating things, and conversations not functioning as conversations but mostly as exposition. Some of it might be conventions of the genre, but a fair amount of it is actually lazy writing and directing. 

The story is also laughable. We follow Tiger Chen as he goes from being a generally good guy to being a hardcore fighter in an underground fighting circuit. He becomes cold and vicious. At first he does it for his temple, so that he can save it and preserve Tai Chi. But as is expected, the fighting corrupts him and we go into darker territory. At the same time Karen Mok plays a cop trying to track down the illegal fighting circuit, which, well, if you’re familiar with the genre, you know what happens when their paths cross.

There isn’t anything new in terms of story here. In fact, it misses a lot of opportunities to add something new to the Kung Fu flick. Still, if you’re up for some Kung Fu fighting, “Man of Tai Chi” delivers some good stuff to watch. Just temper your expectations and you’ll have a good time. –


Carljoe Javier is at the faculty of English and Comparative Literature at UP. He is also an author, and among his books are The Kobayashi Maru of Love, the new edition of which is available from Visprint Inc. His upcoming Writing 30 will be available as an ebook at amazon, ibookstore, b&n and


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