Okay, this one is going to be tough, so just bear with me here. 'Man of Tai Chi' is not a particularly good movie. It is also not misinterpreted, or necessarily in need of some form of reevaluation after having been unfairly written off (cough – 'The Lone Ranger' – cough), and yet it's still a lot of fun to watch and is, at times, quite appealing on a purely visceral level. There's liveliness in the film that has to do with the way it embraces its own schlock, its blatant video game DNA, and its desire to be nothing more than a simple (like instructions on how to boil water simple) kung fu movie whose shallowness is offset by how often it just looks really good. There's honesty in the way this no-frills martial arts flick moves from rudimentary set piece to rudimentary set piece, just to show off its fantastic fight choreography, which seems to earn the movie a modicum of, if not respect, at least some likeability.
'Man of Tai Chi' is the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves (he also co-stars), which brings him back together with Tiger Chen (who worked as a stuntman for the second and third films in the 'The Matrix' trilogy) and legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, to tell the simple tale of a slender and rather modest Tai Chi student Chen Lin-Hu, who, despite his master's warnings, is seduced into the world of underground martial arts battles by Reeves' sinister, growling, and permanently scowling businessman and snapper-of-necks, Donaka Mark. Chen works as a deliveryman, who seemingly shies away from confrontations of any kind, whether they are with his boss for being a few minutes late, or with a young woman for whom he has some kind of affection for – at least it seems as if he does; it's never explicitly stated. At any rate, this docile delivery drone catches the eye of Mark after a demonstration in a fighting competition reveals how his near-mastery of tai chi has allowed him to turn a spiritual and meditative discipline into a powerful form of fighting that is strictly against his master's instructions.
Early on, Chen only seems interested in disproving those who believed tai chi, as a discipline, was unsuitable for fighting, but not long after he and Mark are introduced, Chen finds himself whisked away to a strange city and placed in a windowless room, suddenly fighting for his life. As it turns out, the fight is part of Mark's unorthodox recruitment process, and Chen's fists of fury just got him through the initial interview. Virtue being what it is, Chen turns down an offer to fight again; that is, until he gets word that his master's temple is suddenly in violation of some fire codes and is in danger of being torn down. This quick change in Chen's circumstances is more than a little fishy, but, no matter, he's ready to sign up with Mark to help pay for the repairs the temple needs.
All of this is evidence that narrative is not exactly a strong suit of 'Man of Tai Chi'; in fact, the entire plot (thin as it is) barely lifts a finger to convincingly move Chen from fight to fight, so that he can eventually progress to the "end boss" that is Donaka Mark. It's all very conventional, and the addition of a zealous cop trying to bring Mark down, despite the inescapable notion of police corruption, feels mostly tangential until it briefly becomes the key to moving the story into the third act, where it is quickly forgotten again.
But while the narrative structure is wildly reminiscent of fighting games like 'Street Fighter' and 'Mortal Kombat' – particularly due to Reeves repeatedly telling fighters to "finish him" – screenwriter Michael G. Cooney (unsurprisingly best known for his work writing videogames) goes to great lengths to throw in many not-so-subtle inferences that this is all a battle for Chen's soul. Although not entirely out of place, such heavy-handed spiritual notions don't necessarily do the film any favors or add any real depth, but when you throw in a bizarre twist that's reminiscent of 'The Truman Show,' at least they point to Reeve's character as something more than just a guy making a buck off distributing illegal fights – he wants to document the corruption of an innocent soul. Why? Well…it's a good bet the movie doesn't even know.
It's all a bit hokey, this depiction of an innocent man's soul being sullied through the promise of money and an eventual surrender to his own bloodlust, but there's an overwhelming sense that 'Man of Tai Chi' is far less concerned with the ultimate future of Chen's soul than his would-be corruptor is. The movie seems to have only included this trifling bit of plot to help round out its rapid succession of increasingly elaborate and well-staged fight sequences (which are all rendered quite nicely on screen). And, at the end of the day, it's hard to imagine anyone – Reeves included – found much need for the movie to be about anything beyond kung fu. This is a martial arts movie first and foremost; its disregard for having a comprehensible plot is practically worn as a badge of honor, a signal that nothing matters more than the artistry of battle and its precise depiction of that conflict.
'Man of Tai Chi' won't get a lot of credit, but it deserves credit for unabashedly being precisely what it is: a visually and viscerally exciting film that makes up for its massive narrative shortcomings with dynamic and entertaining fight sequences shoehorned in, one after another, like a rich kid pumping quarters into the Mortal Kombat machine at the bowling alley. Reeves certainly has a knack for making his film look and move in the kind of way more martial arts movies should; the film is so fluid and kinetic in its depiction of the various fisticuffs on display that it's not difficult to forget the inanity of the script and just focus on the beauty, imagination, and skill on display in the many, many fight sequences. The story here is not particularly brilliant or remarkable, and in the end, the battles that are meant to bolster the story wind up being all the story this movie really needs.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Man of Tai Chi' comes Anchor Bay Entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. There are several previews before the top menu, but they can all be skipped. The menu is fairly standard, allowing you to choose the set up and subtitles. The disc comes with an optional commentary and a short featurette.
'Man of Tai Chi' comes with an absolutely stunning image that is both surprising for a first-time director, and somewhat expected, considering the lengthy career Reeves has had. The film uses its cinematography smartly, shifting through a wide variety of color palates, settings, and levels of light. Additionally, the movie utilizes an interesting filming technique to capture the fight sequences in a more dynamic fashion; this effectively renders these moments in such a way that the viewer is practically a part of the action. Through it all, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded image delivers a high level of fine detail across the board, paying particular attention facial feature and background elements.
The image's contrast levels are high in most places as well. Blacks are typically rendered boldly, while white levels never seem to run amok. There are a few times when the image does seem to be a shade too dark, but there is a suggestion that it could have been deliberate, so even though it keeps the image from being perfect, there may have been a reason for that. The color palate is also shown a little dark in most places – e.g., blacks, blues, grays – but there is one sequence where Chen is battling in a nightclub, and the palate changes to bright neon and flashy costumes. In this segment, the colors really pop and look exceptional.
This is wonderful image that comes just shy of being top grade. It does a fantastic job of delivering clarity when necessary, and even hints at a bit of artistry behind the overall look and feel of the film.
This being a film from Anchor Bay, it's surprising to see 'Man of Tai Chi' has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, rather than the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 they usually slap on to their releases. This particular mix is quite strong, delivering maximum impact with regard to dialogue, sound effects and music. The sound is spread fairly evenly throughout the film, with directionality and imaging playing a large part in making the sound of punches, kicks, and bodies being violently thrown to the ground. This creates an immersive experience that works in tandem with the cinematography to put the viewer right in the middle of the action. True, some of the sounds do get a tad repetitive after a while (you can only hear a guy yell before kicking someone in the face so many times before it loses its effect), but at least those sounds are consistently robust.
In addition, the musical score manages to sound quite nice, and is blended evenly with the other audio aspects that are typically on display. LFE comes in handy at times, delivering punishing blows or loud thuds, which adds another dimension to the sound. There are a few moments when the fights begin to feel a little one dimensional – there can be a dearth of atmospheric elements during some of the fight sequences, and some locations deliver a hollow, rather than echo-y reverberation, but these are generally short-lived.
Overall, the sound is very nicely done and generally provides a great listening experience.
'Man of Tai Chi' isn't going to win anyone over with its complex storytelling or fascinating characters, primarily because it doesn't really have either. But what it does have is a lot of energy and a desire to pack in as many entertaining and diverse fight sequences as possible, and offer up some reason for them to take place, and a small amount of meaning behind each one. It's certainly not deep, but it's enough to give fans of martial arts films a reason to watch. The film and disc both look terrific, which helps tremendously. Add the great audio and an entertaining commentary to the mix and this film is definitely worth a look.