Keanu Reeves has taken a lot of flak from people over the years. But he always puts them in their place merely by seeking ~ and usually achieving ~ excellence in his own quiet way. It’s why I’ve utterly adored him for decades.
With “Man of Tai Chi,” his directorial debut, he puts the smackdown on criticism once more.
Let’s remember, this is a guy who has been devotedly present for several loved ones, suffered grievous loss upon their tragic passings, brought in over three billion dollars at the box office as of this writing (that’s billion, with a B), and given an astonishing amount of his own take of that away. Bill and Melinda Gates may get all the attention, but Keanu Reeves is the one who shows true personal generosity.
Not only because he’s an exceptionally decent (and appealingly idiosyncratic) guy, I’ve loved him cinematically for what I call “Keanu’s Narrow Band” (my movie group friends are well-acquainted with this term).
Keanu Reeves knows himself. He knows where his strengths lie, he works to hone them to the sharpest of edges, and for the most part he does nothing else but work within them. When they’re in somewhat watered down fashion he’s unmemorable but not bad (think Constantine, etc.), yet when they’re in full unfiltered force, i.e, within Keanu’s Narrow Band, Reeves is exceptional.
Consider his genuine, loving partner (“The Lake House,” “Something’s Gotta Give”); his utterly evil reprobate (“The Gift,” and now “Man of Tai Chi”); and his brook-no-nonsense action badass (“Speed,” “The Matrix”). When he’s here, he’s as good as it gets. Oscar bait? No. Excellent work? Absolutely. (Hmm, and could it be the three ways he’s responded to the aforementioned challenges? I’m no psychologist and don’t know him personally, but it’s an interesting thought. But I digress.)
It’s a perfect three-legged stool, strong and sure, underpinned by three solid portrayals and now with direction under his belt, a sound seat. You gotta love this guy.
So, “Man of Tai Chi.”
Again, the perfect selection of material. Reeves stays with what he knows, hones it to the keenest edge, and executes brilliantly. Keanu’s Narrow Band.
Here we meet young Tiger Chen, a devoted student of master Yu Hai of the Ling Kong temple. Tiger’s exceptional abilities impress the ruthless organizer of an underground fight club, who offers him a job: you fight, and if you win you get paid, and if you lose get fired.
Though Tiger denounces the notion of fighting for money, his devotion to his master and the master’s temple overrides his conviction when the temple is threatened by developers. But the work is not what it seems, and suddenly emerges a competing master…
A martial arts movie about a fellow practicing the tradition we often see practiced onscreen by Helen Mirren? Hm. Confused by the title? Yeah, me too. Welcome to the first thing to pay attention to.
Second thing? Don’t overlook a single word spoken by Reeves as Donaka Mark, the fight club organizer. Third thing? Keep your eyes on the license plates. Fourth thing? The almost exact parallel split-second to a moment performed by Rosalinda Celentano in a certain notable role.
Fifth thing: the performance of the real Tiger Hu-Chen (a stunt man in the Matrix movies, by the way). His own performance is excellent, and the fight squences are dazzling, even for non-martial-arts enthusiasts like myself. Sixth thing: the chilling complement to the revelation expressed toward the end of “Prisoners,” again expressed toward the end of “Man of Tai Chi.” I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the evil that men (and women) do isn’t borne merely of the wreckage they render, it’s of something much more sinister. Mercy.
Seventh thing: Keanu Reeves himself. He knows himself, he knows his strengths, and he knows how to choose material that sets them off to perfection. Who knew that the entire time he was filming the “Matrix” trilogy, he was studying in the temple of Wachowski, and awaiting the script that would prove the skill?
But indeed he was, and for Reeves/Wachowski fans “Man of Tai Chi” is delectable perfection. In acting, we have him in pinnacle reprobate form as Donaka Mark, the fight organizer, with a heavy splash of Neo. In direction, for martial arts fans I can’t speak, and for action fans in general I must grant that we haven’t anything new per se, but for Reeves/Wachowski fans “Man of Tai Chi” creates the blissful completion of a trinity: “Bound” (which was the Wachowskis’ proof of concept for “Matrix” funding),”The Matrix” (‘nuff said there), and “Man of Tai Chi” (in which Reeves takes what he learned and makes it into something new for himself).
The story engages well, and it’s unparalleled fun (even moreso than “Cloud Atlas,” actually) to see the Wachowski influence in Reeves’ work. But make no mistake, this is Reeves’ film and no mere shadow; in fact, I can honestly say that my beloved Wachowskis have never approached the poignancy accomplished by Reeves in the sequence during which Tiger and his master both realize that Tiger is making his exit, and all that that implies. (It’s resonant of that aforementioned devoted character, actually.)
“Man of Tai Chi” represents a quite brilliant debut, and I’ll easily sign up for Reeves’ next one.
Story: A martial artist’s exceptional skill catches the attention of a ruthless underground fight club operator.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen, Karen Mok, Yu Hai
Directed by: Keanu Reeves
Running time: 105 minutes
Houston release date: November 1, 2013
Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings
Screened Oct 30th at the Edwards Marq*E theater in Houston TX