I was very surprised by this film, on the surface it looks terrible: a martial arts action flick with a Tai Chi fighter tricked into competing a in a cage fighting tournament, starring and directed by Keanu Reeves in his directorial debut.
Like many martial arts films, I expected this to be pretty bad. Many things can go wrong in the martial arts genre: bad acting, bad choreography, weak storyline, etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this film: decent acting, excellent choreography and a compelling storyline.
Keanu Reeves can be one of those polarizing actors: some really like him; others really hate him. I wouldn’t call him a great actor, but he delivers a competent performance in this movie. His mostly wooden acting style suits the amoral, villainous character he plays.
Tiger Hu Chen plays Chen Lin-hu , the titular character, a conflicted Tai Chi student who is at odds with the teachings of his style and sifu (kung fu master). He lusts for something forbidden: validation as a great fighter.
Chen firsts seeks validation in traditional martial arts tournaments by competing with other traditional Chinese martial arts styles. After besting most of his competitors, he catches the notice of Reeves’ character, an underground NHB (no holds barred) fight promoter named Donaka Mark. At first Chen Lin-Hu is reluctant to compete, but Donaka Mark convinces him otherwise with some dirty, underhanded tactics. We see Chen conflicted over wanting to live by traditional values of Tai Chi, but losing that focus and wanting to become a powerful NHB fighter and ultimately a killing machine.
The real star of the movie is the choreography, like many martial arts films. The fighting scenes are very well done pitting Chen’s Tai Chi against Taekwondo, Southern-style kung fu, mixed martial arts and Pentjak Silat. The spectacular fight scenes were choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen (Forbidden Kingdom, Iron Monkey, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Kung Fu Hustle.) Interestingly enough, Tai Chi is shown as a formidable fighting art. Outside of China, Tai Chi is mostly shown as super slow-motion exercise for elderly people who practice in groups in parks. In China, Tai Chi has a long history of being regarded as a devastating fighting art. It was interesting to see how Woo-ping Yuen translated the super-slow movements of Tai Chi into full-speed martial arts fighting techniques. There were also the obligatory “master-trains-pupil” scenes showing Chen sparring with his sifu. However, hardcore mixed martial arts fans may find the fight scenes unrealistic. But it is a kung fu movie after all, not about realistic hand-to-hand combat.
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I would recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys martial arts films. Those who enjoy films about people growing and overcoming personal obstacles may want to take a look this film as well.
Skip it if you think martial arts films are stupid or you dislike Keanu Reeves.
MDE’s Self-Appointed Movie Critic