Two movies in one, one of which is quite good and the second of which is lacking, Man of Tai Chi is a decent directorial debut for Keanu Reeves. But it could have been better.
As its first half proves. By admirably showing not telling, Man of Tai Chi’s first fifty minutes develop a deferential but strong willed martial artist, Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen), as he transforms from competitive but kind, to ruthless and aggressive.
A character path that is best reflected by carefully calibrated fight sequences. In early fights, Reeves washes his combatants in bright light. He also limits cuts and camera movements, changing our viewpoint only when the fighters’ positioning is substantively different. In so doing, he makes the fights akin to beautifully choreographed dance movements, rife with artistry and patience.
But as the first half progresses and Tiger changes, Reeves approaches the fights differently. Here they are darkly lit and shadowy. Plus, the camera moves more frequently, all of which culminates in a brutal two on one battle that takes place underneath wild strobe lighting and in front of a live audience. Because of Reeves’ directorial decisions, later fights are not artistic. They are barbaric and brutal, just like Tiger.
Because of these and other merits, including an appealing mystery that promises cathartic pay off, the first half of Man of Tai Chi is almost excellent.
But the second half loses focus. It stops carefully developing Tiger, and instead focuses on conflict between a suddenly reluctant protagonist and a cliched villain, Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves).
Said villain is Man of Tai Chi’s greatest flaw throughout, but he’s a minor issue early, courtesy of limited screen time. When Mark starts to garner additional attention, the movie cannot escape his underdevelopment.
Just as it cannot overcome the aforementioned mystery’s reveal. In following Sun Jingshi (Karen Mok), Writer Michael G. Cooney builds anticipation. What is Mark’s nefarious plan? It is certain to be riveting.
But when Cooney finally reveals the entire truth, it is not nearly as fulfilling as earlier events promised. Indeed, it is borderline unbelievable.
Ditto that for Man of Tai Chi’s final fight, a battle that features a heretofore unbeatable Tiger facing a character whom we have not previously seen exhibit martial prowess. That they fight in a near senseless location doesn’t help either.
All of which is to say: this movie’s first half is very good. The second half is not.