Fighting for the sanctity of his temple, Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen) strikes his foes with a mastery of Tai Chi. Collected and respectful, Chen is invited into underground fight spectacle. This money saturated pay-per-view audience demands death and its creator, Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), proves ruthless.
Out goes respect and restraint for Chen, pitted with martial artists of clashing styles in vivid, beautifully choreographed brawls. Man of Tai Chi is relentless with its action displays, using few segues and even less story to propel viewers between confrontations. If these brawls are cutthroat, so is pacing, much to the detriment of Tai Chi’s third act. Elements of honor and character growth become separated from the film’s core fight values in a crippling slowdown.
The film takes its shots and succeeds in preparation for a final round of fisticuffs between Chen and director Keanu Reeves. Build up is arguably better than said finished product, at least post so many other intense bouts. In between is a story arc regarding a disgruntled detective tracking this stealthy fight ring after her superiors strike down her investigation. With no fights for her, it’s no sale even as her work draws close to its goal.
Man of Tai Chi is a raw, even vintage kung fu escapade. Drizzled with modern splashes of violence, Reeves and company capture each strike with reverence for the work invested. Instead of chop cuts, other tactics are utilized to best sell dramatic impact. Sweeping lenses and consideration of 2.35:1 scope add flair. Touches of wire work dabble in Hong Kong tradition, with most of Tai Chi naturally locked to gravity’s forces.
It is important to note how thinly veiled this film is, propelled only by its urge to rumble. Narrative strikes are executed out of spite to thrust additional choreography on screen. Tai Chi follows video gaming and its urges to access action as opposed to story, no surprise considering writer Michael G. Cooney’s prominence with interactive scripting. Even then, Tai Chi wrangles an embarrassing student/master trope which only gains value in the closing act.
Tiger Chen’s arc is of mild interest, turned from an expectant student to disciplined kung fu artist and finally brutalizing near killer without honor. Nearly all of this occurs in action, with Chen’s move set bolstered by increasingly aggressive and over confident motions. This is Chen’s first starring role, and although speaking his native tongue, performance is wisely forced into his athletic attribute set as opposed to thick dialog scenes. The same cannot be said for Reeves’ appallingly stunted work in front of the lens, striking no chords as the hilariously stiff fight promoter. Thankfully, Tai Chi is ahead enough to cover its narrative and acting neglect.
Digitally shot, Tai Chi comes to Blu-ray either under the unfortunate effect of digital filtering or source tinkering. While the film shows outstanding perseverance in close – with precision facial definition something to be proud of – medium shots crumble under entirely digital conditions. Evidence of light smearing, utterly distracting during the opening fight, continues through to the closing frames with varying degrees (and consistency) of intrusion.
Edges show limited signs of ringing, added to the list of digital quirks which tend to hover over this visually dulled piece. Moments of contrast reveal thin halos more associated to vintage film than modern digital. Black levels only cover so much, and even then they lack thrust to reach true black. While still sufficient, there is a loss of density to scenes where it’s needed most.
Touches of blues and teals create a fight club atmosphere of annoyingly familiar scope. Color grading saps the life from the frame for the sake of dour conditions. Prior, the movie sticks to a routine natural palette without a need for touch up. The dusty grays of temple training are of little counter to the almost broadcast-like scenery of professional tournaments as Chen works through those legitimate ranks.
Anchor Bay’s encoding work adds no additional compounding issues to the feature. Compression work is invisible.
Layers of effective surround use adds space to tournaments, with PA announcers sprouting up in each channel. Echoes of the fights themselves are handled delicately without exaggeration. Shouting pops from the center for layered activity in the rears.
For low-end thumps, the soundtrack performs admirably. Bass racks up an impressive list of moments even if it exists outside of the sound design itself. It’s purely called upon from the musical selection. To show off a bit, a wrecking car is sent down a hill with adequate force. It makes up for the crummy CG effects used to make it visually.
Keanu Reeves and his Tiger Chen put together a commentary which focuses on both of their first time experiences behind or in front of the lens. An eight minute making of is merely passable.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.