Keanu Reeves’s Man of Tai Chi is an almost poignantly traditional martial-arts film concerned with notions of—what else?—tradition. The protagonist, “Tiger” Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen), is that classic kind of action hero: a sensitive, frustrated young man whose talents are in danger of being polluted by his anger. Tiger’s master stresses to his student that physical proficiency in tai chi is but one element of a practice that’s meant to help one reach a greater and deeper level of mental health and well-being. But Tiger, as is the wont of many young men eager to distinguish their abilities from their teachers’, is preoccupied with forging his own path, in this case, by proving that tai chi can be a prominent form of assertion in addition to deflection, a point he gets to dubiously prove when he falls in with the underground fight club that’s overseen by wealthy security contractor, Donaka Mark (Reeves), who encourages Tiger to allow his aggression to resolve prominent life-or-death decisions.
That’s pretty much the entire story, which is obviously intended as a framework with which Reeves and the brilliant choreographer Woo-ping Yuen can hang a variety of fight set pieces of theoretically escalating intensity, and there are, indeed, some poetically brutal grace notes. The look of Mark’s lair logically reflects the sensibility of a rich man who prizes aggression above all other elements of human existence; it’s all streamlined, chic blues and grays, particularly the battle room itself, which is a large square metallic room that’s suggestive of a giant industrial box of cigars, thus allowing for an arrangement that’s ruthlessly pragmatic: The fighters enter the room and pummel one another, in a series of curt, effectively compressed sequences, so that Mark can secretly tape them and sell them to illegal global channels.
Unfortunately, the film ultimately doesn’t live up to this early potential. As a director, Reeves loses his way in the third act with too many false climaxes, but, fortunately, he appears to be having a hell of a time as an actor parodying his undeserved professional reputation as a hopeless block of wood. Reeves does something in Man of Tai Chi that’s subtle and almost destined to be taken for granted: He plays an American bad guy in a predominantly Chinese film as if he’s been randomly and carelessly dubbed by another random American actor. Reeves drains his presence of his warmth, and all you see is a curdled aggression that’s both a parody of martial-arts bad guys as well as a spoof of the insane big-dick machismo that often prevails in the corporate board rooms of men who appear to feel as if they must superficially compensate for spending most of their time in a white-collar realm. Man of Tai Chi is a negligible doodle, but it’s enlivened by this unexpected form of critical self-defense that resembles a good naturedly bitter tongue-in-cheek vaudeville.