Being forgetful has its upside: you can’t have a prejudice about something you don’t remember. And, believe it or not, I forgot that Keanu Reeves was the director of ‘Man of Tai Chi’ some time between watching the trailer and watching the film. It probably doesn’t even out all the social awkwardness I enjoy by not recalling any name in a party, but you, my dear readers, get the benefit: a bias-free review (Keanu-related-bias-free, at least).
Watching the film, I soon wanted to look up who directed this quirky film to make a decision: if it was a veteran, I would be merciless; if it was a newcomer, I was willing to cut him some slack. That’s because I sensed that there was a specific intention (theme-wise) behind the obviously deliberated shots and general aesthetic of the movie and, maybe, a newcomer couldn’t get the control level he needed to “hit the mark” (whether out of a lack of technical expertise or a lack of leverage to centralize decisions). When I re-discovered who the director was, although I’m somewhat of a Reeves fan, I had to stick to my guns. As I guess that Keanu, being a star and all, could do more or less whatever he wanted, I was only left with “he isn’t good enough”. Al least, not yet.
There’s no single giant mistake in the movie except the lead role casting. Mr. Tiger can kick, but his face is as stiff as Keanu’s neck. And OK, it’s also true that the story doesn’t give many specifics for an actor to hold on to and make a believable character with, but that wasn’t the bet. In fact, before re-realizing that Keanu was the director, I was already thinking: “Keanu was the only actor to get the tone of this film”. No wonder: he directed himself. The problem is that he wasn’t able to give the same sense of direction to every other actor (almost everyone being better than Tiger, but out of sync nonetheless). The story of ‘Man of Tai Chi’ couldn’t be simpler; the plot is, up to some extent, irrelevant, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when you get the emotion elsewhere (symbols, performances, music, photography…). Moreover, when the script tried to naturalize, justify or explain the characters decisions, trying to hide their archetypal nature, it undermined the deeper theme: there’s power in peace, no peace in power… and misery loves company.
I want to believe that Keanu had a kind of sage vision for the film, wanting it to be concept-driven (instead of character or plot-driven). Evidence for it is the intensive use of symbolism versus the almost non-existent character backgrounds. This is probably the most difficult kind of movie to pull off, and maybe a bit too big of a bite for a first-timer to chew. In this type of narrative, the subtlety lies not the topping, but the essential: all of it is really a formal game, and it’s not an easy game to master. All the understandable concessions made to satisfy a supposedly shallow audience, from script to fight design, end up devaluating the whole experience, leaving it in a kind of narrative no man’s land. But I’m inclined to applaud the attempt. And that’s probably the Keanu fan in me talking.
But, is it fun? It has its moments. Nothing revolutionary in any aspect, but Mr. Reeves took some good stuff from his Wachowski days. And he fights! And in a probably better suited style for him than Neo’s (him being the ‘powerful’ one, this time). The choreography is maybe too ‘clean’ (as in “now you hit, now I hit” old school), but camera placement and performers get them working most of the time. Almost every other aspect is at least “pro enough”, except an infamous CGI car crash that hurt worse than Bambi’s mum death. And, what’s that about having Iko Uwais in the fighters roster and not letting him (really) fight? To sum it up, if we evaluate the film on it’s own, it’s not totally bad, but not good enough either. It won’t change your life… but if your life doesn’t need to be changed and only wants a little kung-fu (or, say, Tai Chi) action to kill an hour and a half, this flick could do the trick.
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