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Movie Review

Keanu Reeves debuts as director in ‘Man of Tai Chi’

Tiger Chen and Keanu Reeves in “Man of Tai Chi,” the film directing debut by Reeves.

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Tiger Chen and Keanu Reeves in “Man of Tai Chi,” the film directing debut by Reeves.

He won’t be mistaken for Wong Kar Wei very soon, or even Newt Arnold, of “Bloodsport” (1988), but Keanu Reeves’s directorial career gets off to a decent start with this hit-and-miss martial arts allegory about good and evil and kicking butt. He makes one big casting mistake – himself as the bad guy. Also, Tiger Chen is a little uncharismatic as the hero, “Tiger” Chen Lin-Hu; he looks like a cross between Michael Cera and Reeves. Then there is also Reeves’s pretentious stylistic flourishes, and a narrative that ebbs and flows listlessly with a tendency toward mystical hokum. But with his thoughtful exploration of the conflict between desire and responsibility, and his self-reflexive exploration of the themes of voyeurism, ambition, and personal identity, Reeves’s debut shows signs of a talented filmmaker.

Reeves plays Donaka Mark, the head of a Beijing-based security company. On the side he puts on fight-to-the-death martial arts bouts for chichi international clients who look like they just came from the sex-slave auction in “Taken” (2008). After terminating the contract for his reigning champion, Donaka’s looking for new blood. You can tell this guy is evil because he puts on a blank, glowering mask when he commits his most dastardly deeds. And you can tell it’s Keanu Reeves because the mask is more expressive than the actor.

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Blankly glowering at the multiple TV screens in his gray-on-gray minimalist den (Reeves was obviously paying attention during the shooting of the “Matrix” trilogy), Donaka spots Tiger kicking butt at a legitimate, televised martial arts competition. Remarkably, Tiger’s fighting style is tai chi, that seemingly nonviolent, dance-like discipline often practiced by retirees in parks. Tiger has somehow turned this most passive of the martial arts into a fiercely aggressive weapon. Donaka is impressed, and is likewise taken by Tiger’s ingenuous, boyish demeanor. “Innocent!” he mutters with sinister satisfaction.

Unfortunately, Reeves still looks like an innocent himself. He just can’t get beyond being the doe-eyed ingénue. But Tiger is not exactly innocent, either — he’s being naughty, disobeying Master Yang (Yu Hai), who has ordered him to not lose control of his “chi” — that all-conquering but amoral inner power. In other words, no fighting until you’ve finished your meditation.

So much for the good father figure. As for the bad father figure, Donaka manages without too much trouble to seduce Tiger into his bloody racket. But since the determined Hong Kong police inspector Suen Jing-Si (Karen Mok) is hot on his trail and trying to find an informer, Donaka keeps Tiger under 24-hour surveillance and watches his every move on his TV monitors. Let’s call it “Fighting Tiger, Hidden Camera.”

Reeves’s commentary on the simulated reality endemic to today’s culture inspires some of the film’s best images. In one wryly trenchant scene, Tiger tosses an opponent through a two-way mirror, revealing the Wizard of Oz-like functionaries behind it. But though the action is not mindless, it can get a bit mind-numbing. Nonetheless, Reeves shows signs of becoming a first-rate director, provided he recognizes and develops his strengths, which, at least in this outing, do not include acting.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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