Keanu Reeves' directorial debut "Man of Tai Chi" has an interesting premise: Tai chi, the meditative art practiced in countless parks and living rooms around the world, has a dark side that could make it the deadliest of martial arts once unleashed.
Once you accept the notion that tai chi is Clark Kent becoming not just Superman, but a Bruce Lee version of Superman, you're on your way to being thoroughly entertained by a film that had the potential to be a whole lot worse.
Tiger Chen, a former martial arts stunt man who first worked with Mr. Reeves in "The Matrix" series, stars as a character nicknamed "Tiger," a much put-upon courier in modern day Beijing.
Starring: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok.
Rating: R for violence.
Tiger has no dreams he's capable of articulating. He's content to have dinner with his elderly parents and submit to the daily discipline of his elderly tai chi master (Yu Hai). There are worse things than scratching out an existence as an affable and agreeable provider for his parents and master.
The one area where Tiger has the courage to assert himself is in a mainstream martial arts competition. Even though his teacher insists it should never be used aggressively, Tiger believes tai chi fighting is compatible with the rule-bound world of competitive martial arts.
Despite his master's disapproval, Tiger's ascent in the standings of a televised tournament is proof that competition, while watering down tai chi's spiritual elements, hasn't diminished its power.
It is during a televised competition that Tiger is noticed by Donaka Mark (Mr. Reeves) the organizer of an underground fighting competition and CEO of a security company. Using the lure of a job at his security firm as bait, Mark scouts Asia for exceptional fighters he can pit against each other for the amusement of rich clients.
Mr. Reeves' character, who has a penchant for wearing black, is intrigued by Tiger's relative innocence and dedication to what is traditionally considered a "soft" art. From the start, Mark hatches a plan to seduce Tiger to the dark side in a way that will either lead to his corruption or his death.
It isn't long before Tiger is fighting for profit. He buys a fancy car, a big screen TV for his parents and nice clothes for himself, but oddly enough, he doesn't spend a dime of his newfound wealth on women. He is still nominally obedient to his master, but has checked out of tai chi's spiritual practices altogether.
Tiger justifies his secret life as a human cockfighter as a necessity to save his master's 500-year-old monastery from being condemned and bulldozed by rapacious real estate interests. He sinks tens of thousands of dollars into bringing the monastery up to code and into getting historic landmark recognition, but his master still disapproves of his fighting ways.
Meanwhile, a Hong Kong cop (Karen Mok) is determined to bring down Mark's international fight club after he kills an informant she planted in his organization.
The convergence of these two stories gives Mr. Reeves all the excuse he needs to cram his movie full of some of the most impressive fight scenes ever shot for a martial arts film. The choreography is by Yuen Woo-ping, another colleague from "The Matrix" and, arguably, the best fight scene choreographer in the business.
The script by Michael G. Cooney won't win any awards for eloquence, but it has the virtue of at least being straightforward. It is also derivative in the best sense of the word, drawing as it does from far better martial arts movies.
The final fight scene between Tiger and Mark feels like an anticlimax given everything that has come before it, although it does provide a nice ending to a workman-like script.
As Mr. Reeves' maiden voyage as a director, "Man of Tai Chi" isn't exactly "The Matrix," but at least it has a bedrock integrity that completely eludes that groundbreaking film's increasingly disappointing sequels.
This is a popcorn film with art movie pretensions at times. Fortunately, it never stops moving long enough to take itself too seriously.
Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.