For an actor as chronically stiff as Keanu Reeves, his directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” shows a surprising amount of agility.
Stretching the chopsocky genre to include meditations on the dangerous allure of power and the disadvantages of wearing a necktie in combat, Reeves’ loose, playful, generously action-heavy time-killer even pokes a little fun at his notoriously wooden persona.
In the film — now available for video-on-demand rental and purchase — Reeves plays Donata Mark, a zillionaire sadist who runs an underground fight club in Hong Kong and appears to think that offering the slightest facial expression at any point would ruin his reputation as a man in complete control. (Donata makes Reeves’ tabula rasa in “The Matrix” look like Jerry Lewis.)
Just how controlling is this villain? The film’s savage opening scene, set in a concrete cell-cum-ring, establishes that if his fighters don’t kill each other in the course of their bout, Donata may finish them off himself. Needless to say, there’s a high turnover rate among Donata employees.
Needing a quick replacement, the boss sees Tiger Chen (Chen Hu) outscoring an opponent on TV and sets out to exploit the victor’s naivete. Hired as Donata’s latest limb-snapping attraction, the Beijing-based Tiger, formerly a courier, gets corrupted by jet-setting celebrity, copious testosterone production and cash; he goes from doing predawn tai chi exercises and studying English tapes in the car to jabbing his thumbs in the eye sockets of adversaries.
Reeves has spoken of “Man of Tai Chi” as his way of paying tribute to Chen, his pal and personal trainer. Chen certainly comes off well, his lightning-fast and limber fight moves brilliantly choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, who worked with Reeves on “The Matrix” trilogy.
By comparison, Reeves’ own martial arts stylings, showcased in the film’s climax, suggest nothing so much as the pixilated flailings of a ’90s-era kung fu video-game character. As a fledgling filmmaker, though, the star is in decent shape.
Also notable on VOD
Yuen, who also worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” has been coordinating martial arts action in movies since the early 1970s, occasionally directing the films himself. One of Yuen’s earliest titles available on VOD is 1978’s “Drunken Master” (free via Crackle.com, with commercial interruptions), on which he served as Jackie Chan’s stunt coordinator in addition to occupying the director’s chair.
Named for the old boozehound kung fu titan played by Yuen’s dad, Yuen Siu-tien, “Drunken Master” is primitive but pioneering and time-tested, still coming as close to pure slapstick as chopsocky ever has. Kicks, punches and slaps sound like cracking whips, while Chan comes on like Harold Lloyd in the rare moments when he’s not twirling upside down and such. The English dubbing on the Crackle edition is atrocious — and arguably essential for comedic purposes.
Besides having made Chan’s career, Yuen has also supplied killer moves to the likes of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, who co-star in 1994’s Yuen-directed epic “Wing Chun” (Netflix). Among Yuen’s credits as action choreographer are the international hit “Kung Fu Hustle” (available for purchase via Xbox, Vudu and others), directed by and starring Stephen Chow, and, recently, Wong Kar-wai’s unspeakably gorgeous “The Grandmaster,” which, with any luck, will be knocking us flat via VOD before the Chinese New Year.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.