Sun Jingshi (Karen Mok) is a Hong Kong cop who believes there is an illegal fighting ring going on in her city, and she's right about that only when the time comes to finally trace one of these events she and her team of armed response officers find nothing at the location but an orchid as a jeering gesture to them. The man she really needs to track is Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who is the head of the fight club, and when he has taken his combatants as far as they will go, if they do not comply with his wishes he personally murders them, reasoning in his twisted way that if the fighter will not take a life then he will take theirs. Meanwhile, Tai Chi student Tiger Chen (Tiger Chen Hu) is entering a more official contest...
Apparently the period from 2012-13 was the time for American celebs to make their dreams of helming a martial arts flick a reality, and not any old martial arts flick but one crafted in the home of such entertainments, Hong Kong and China. Not that The RZA's The Man with the Iron Fists was much of a success either along with Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, but nobody could accuse them of not having their hearts in the right place as they both wished to convey their genuine appreciation for the genre, and for curiosity value alone they were both worth a look. In comparison, Reeves' take on the style was no less reverent but a lot less flashy, resembling something functional like a feature length television episode.
That said, the attempt to get to the basis of Tai Chi was plainly there, and with all its spiritual talk you could easily understand why the lead character's use of it as a fighting technique was not necessarily the healthiest application for the practice. But as Donaka's latest recruit, this was all about Tiger balancing the yin and yang, the light and dark, between his the wishes of his master (Hai Yu) on the good side, and Donaka on the evil as the latter does his best to corrupt Tiger's soul. This was an intriguing background to what pretty much amounted to your essential tournament martial arts movie, though you would be pondering how much it was relevant to a form of diversion which relied on watching actors knocking seven bells out of one another.
If it was the combat you wanted, then it was here, and choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping to boot, with Reeves patently feeling energised by the sequences where Tiger gets around to the punching and kicking as quite often these were the best in the film. There was the tendency to opt for the fast cutting that later works in this style would lean on, thereby making it difficult to see just how effective the performers were at the scrapping, but refreshingly that wasn't always the case here, so you could perceive talent in Chen Hu that might have been underutilised in the movies before: he wasn't the international celebrity his director and co-star was, that was for sure. Funnily enough, it wasn't him who had the martial arts fans interested, it was the guest star.
That said, if you had seen The Raid and were keen for more Iko Uwais, you might have given Man of Tai Chi a go when you would really have been better with a Raid sequel since the star was presented as the final fighter in the Donaka ruse, set to beat up our hero in the ring before a coterie of invited guests, only for Tiger to run around said ring complaining that he didn't want to fight, leaving this more like a Bugs Bunny cartoon than the big showdown we were keen to see. Elsewhere, Keanu reasoned his best bet in his advancing years was to play the villain, yet demonstrated why he is best suited to playing the hero as brooding didn't exactly fit him like a glove, no matter what the "Sad Keanu" meme would have you believe. His finale as the big boss was lacking too, using slow motion to mask how, well, slow he was now in comparison to his lead, so if a curious lack of authenticity applied to this in spite of many more Asians involved in its creation than Hollywood types, it did scratch an itch about what a Keanu directed effort would be like. Very peaceful credits, incidentally. Music by Chan Kwong Wing.