It's not entirely a matter of being snarky to refer to Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, as a vanity project through and through.
Constructed as a showcase for martial artist Tiger Hu Chen, this is hardly the first time in the history of action films that an entire project has revolved around the unique athletic and choreographic talents of a given individual. Still, it's somewhat difficult to see what Reeves brings to the table, despite what appears to be at least capable direction in keeping with genre expectations, trading upon whatever is left from his Matrix-era clout and bringing another Yuen Woo-ping extravaganza to the big screen.
This predominantly Chinese-language film has the feel of a second-rung Hong Kong action pic from the 80s. The story proceeds in a fairly rote, predictable fashion, with the young fighter needing to save his master's temple, and sacrificing some of his honour in order to do so. Stripped away from its moments of mysticism, this is little more than an entrant in the Street Fighter saga, a video game-like episodic fighting film with an increasingly intimidating class of opponents.
Chen gets to confront a number of impressive combatants, including a penultimate battle with Iko Uwais (The Raid). It's in the use of Uwais that the film demonstrates its faults -- here we have one of the most dynamic on-screen martial artists in a generation, and he's used for a paltry few moments, mostly to show off his creeping toe technique (which, it must be admitted, is kind of awesome). No doubt, this is intended to make the final opponent even more intimidating, and, while telegraphed from about minute one of the film, I'll leave it to you to figure out the combatants in the last, awkward battle.
I liked the casting of Karen Mok, her angular features providing a strong presence in the film as a police captain on the trail of a multinational martial arts Truman Show (don't ask...). She participates in a scene of great kineticism that's one of the most jarring and effective, if implausible, in the movie, and she handles it well. In fact, save for Reeves, most of the performances seem perfectly attuned to this type of film.
Alas, Mr. "Woah" is as misplaced as you'd expect, his wiry frame and monotone delivery more of a distraction than a welcome component of the piece. Despite being his film to direct, it's Reeves' inclusion that seems the most forced of them all. When he tries to play menacing, it comes off as contrived; there's little behind those dark eyes, which is frankly a shame, given that in other contexts he has proven to be quite a capable performer. Here, it seems he's trying too hard to be coolly detached, and it comes across, like much of the film, as indulgent.
After all is said and done, after we've gone through the rote paces in an assembly line fashion, we're left with a mildly enjoyable if completely forgettable martial arts film. Sure, it's channeling many films that proceeded it, but save for a few brief moments, and the added benefit of experiencing it on a giant screen, Man of Tai Chi has little to recommend it, save for the committed fan of the genre who is simply excited there's another martial arts film to see.
Review originally published in slightly different form during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013. The film opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, November 1. Visit the official site for more information.