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Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen star in "Man of Tai Chi," Reeves' directorial debut.
Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen star in "Man of Tai Chi," Reeves' directorial debut.

Keanu's "Man of Tai Chi" kicks all kinds of butt

As he famously stated in "The Matrix," Keanu Reeves knows kung fu. And if "Man of Tai Chi" is any sign, he knows how to make a pretty damn fun kung fu movie too.

The satisfyingly bare-bones new martial arts actioner stars stuntman (and Keanu’s long-time friend going back to "The Matrix" films) Tiger Chen as the only student of Ling Kong Tai Chi style. His elderly master (Yu Hai) emphasizes balancing the physical power and force of tai chi with its philosophy. The spiritual side, however, doesn’t interest Chen all that much. He prefers the fighting, secretly honing and showing off his peculiar, almost unheard of brand of martial arts to impressed crowds in a local competition.

Among his enthused fans is Donaka Mark (Reeves), a wealthy, fight-loving businessman who offers Chen a job. He takes the gig, but what was originally described as a "security job," however, is actually a place in Mark’s brutal underground fight club, which he broadcasts and sells with a touch of reality TV storytelling to other bored, rich sadists. As the matches escalate in viciousness, Chen finds himself falling even further away from the balance of tai chi and his worried master, and deeper into Mark’s cold, ruthless world of violence.

Nobody goes to a movie called "Man of Tai Chi" for a particularly dense story, and Michael G. Cooney’s script is happy to oblige those low expectations. His Faustian fable throws a few cliché story beats in to keep things moving, like a tired, über-motivated lone cop (Karen Mok) hunting down Mark and a special temple that needs to be saved from being torn down.

The story may be dumb and done before, but it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and it covers its real job requirements just fine: Give us a decent hero, give us a fun villain, set the table for the fights and get the eff out of the way.

Well, we certainly have a villain. As Mark, Reeves manages to be both over-the-top hammy and borderline catatonic. It’s a delightful comb…