Judge Gordon Sullivan is an expert at martial penmanship.
No rules. No mercy. Pure fighting.
Man of Tai Chi is the future. No, I don't expect every film to be a kung fu morality tale in twenty years, but this points to the way films will be financed and made. As viewers demand more and more spectacle from films, their budgets will continue to rise, and with that comes more risk. Smart studios look to both expand their viewership and spread the risk around. That means getting more eyeballs on the screen, and trying to convince non-Hollywood entities to foot part of the bill. China is the perfect place to look: nobody is building theaters faster, and the potential audience is huge. Man of Tai Chi is the result, a multilingual film that features American and Chinese actors with a plot designed to appeal across cultures. Though it's just a slightly-above-average kung fu film, fans of the genre will want to catch it.
Facts of the Case
Tiger (Tiger Hu Chen, Kung Fu Hero) is the last student of Ling Kong Tai Chi. Though Tai Chi is not well known as a proactive martial art, Tiger knows that he can hold his own with any martial artist out there. His master cautions the impetuous Tiger to meditate rather than let his chi control him. Tiger can't help himself, and enters a cultural-exchange style tournament that pits him against other martial arts styles. This brings him to the attention of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix), who runs an underground fighting ring that broadcasts the bouts to gamblers across the globe. When Tiger's temple is threatened with demolition, he has no choice but to enter the ring for Mark.
The first thing that has to be addressed with Man of Tai Chi is the expectations. Lots of people love Keanu (and just as many hate him), so his directorial debut is sure to generate a lot of talk. Add in star Tiger Chen, a famous stunt actor making his way to stardom, along with fight choreography from the renowned Yuen Woo Ping, and you've got a recipe for stratospheric expectations. Let's burst that bubble right now: Man of Tai Chi is not the new standard for kung fu films. Instead, it's a solidly average to slightly-above-average kung fu film that adds a dash of technology to the usual "forced to fight" story.
For the most part, Man of Tai Chi follows the same basic story that every martial arts film does. We have a guy who wants to prove himself and show how awesome his style is. He enters contests to do so, even if it isn't the most honorable thing to do. Someone gives him inducements to fight in a more extreme fight (this time threatening the temple), and he fights until he doesn't want to fight any more before turning on the bad guy. To this well-known formula, Man of Tai Chi adds an element of international video performance, as Tiger's bouts are broadcast to gamblers across the world. Without revealing too much, an interesting third-act twist makes Man of Tai Chi stand out from the genre pack.
Tiger Chen is likable enough as the protagonist. He doesn't have the immediate charisma of other martial arts stars (I'm thinking of someone like Jackie Chan), nor the dramatic chops of someone like Donnie Yen. However, he's really good at being the eager student of the film's opening while making the transition to the darker territory of the second and third acts. It won't win any Oscars, but it serves the film well. Of course his martial arts skills are excellent, and he really sells the changes in style that his form takes on as the film progresses. The rest of the cast (with an exception I'll note below) do an equally fine job of playing the roles they're assigned. We have the tough-as-nails cop, the sifu, the henchmen, etc.
Finally, the martial arts scenes are pretty solid. Many of the bouts happen in the same small room, so the cast and crew have to work to make it interesting. Part of the solution is to pit a bunch of different styles of fighting against Chen, along with a bunch of different sized opponents. There are, of course, the usual tricks like slow-mo, and a bit of wire-fu. Overall, however, there's a real dedication to making the fights look largely authentic, at least for a kung fu movie. Again, Man of Tai Chi doesn't change the game, but for fans of the genre this is decent fighting.
Man of Tai Chi (Blu-ray) also does the film justice. The 2.40:1/1080 AVC-encoded transfer is solid. Detail is generally pretty strong, and colors are well-saturated. Black levels stay consistent and deep, with no digital manipulation to mar the image. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, with the surrounds getting a lot of use for atmosphere. The martial arts scenes have special power, with lots of oomph in the subwoofer and fidelity to hear every bone crack.
Extras start with a commentary by Reeves and Chen. It's a bit too laid back to be consistently interesting, but fans will want to make the effort. There's also a standard making-of featurette that does a pretty good job giving viewers a sense of the multilingual production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know Keanu has star power, and that putting his name alongside the fellows with whom he worked on The Matrix will probably help this film significantly when it comes to viewership. With that said, Keanu should have stayed behind the camera. He's the token white guy in the film, and it's a thankless role, but he brings nothing to it. All of his lines sound the same, and he hammers the same note over and over again. He's supposed to go from seductive to controlling, but he's just wooden throughout. Whatever goodwill the film might generate with non-genre audiences is leeched away by Keanu's regular appearances.
Man of Tai Chi is a solid kung fu flick that will earn a pretty big audience because of the creative team and Keanu's face. That's not an undeserved fate, though fans of the genre might wish for a bit more from such a star-studded group coming together. Worth a look for genre fans and those who remember The Matrix fondly. With a solid Blu-ray from Anchor Bay, this is an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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