Keanu Reeves has been called one of the worst actors of all time, but I always felt that was hyperbolic crap. Sure, he’s not all that versatile, but he’s one of those actors who when given the right role can knock it out of the park. In the late 80s, it was Ted Theodore Logan in the wonderful Bill and Ted movies, and then later he became an icon for a generation of kids whose first R rated film was The Matrix. I’ve always had a soft spot for the guy, and was sad that he more or less disappeared after The Day the Earth Stood Still (one of those movies he was NOT suited for). Last year however, he came back in a big way by directing and starring in this martial arts film that he made over in China. Is this the triumphant return of one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, or is it a desperate attempt to reclaim his popularity after a noticeable slump? If you want to know the answer, then keep on reading!!
The movie begins like all great films should with a two people beating the shit out of each other. It appears to be part of an underground fighting ring which is about to be busted by the cops who we see intercut between the two guys fighting. One of the fighters ends up winning the match, and a man off screen (Keanu Reeves) orders the winner to “FINISH HIM!” Our (presumed) hero refuses, so a gimp comes over and finishes the job. Wait, what?
The cops finally bust in, but unsurprisingly they’re either at the wrong place, or they got there too late. We cut back to the gimp who turns out to be Mr. Reeves himself, and he goes to the locker room where the winner is changing after the fight. Neo asks him what happened out there and gives the guy about four seconds to answer before stabbing him fifty times in the stomach. Wait WHAT!?
Turns out that the guy was a snitch which explains how the police were almost able to busting the fight. The woman leading the investigation gets chewed out by her boss, and the case has been officially closed. We then cut to the ACTUAL hero of the story (the titular man of Tai Chi) who visits his Master’s dojo and does some training. I don’t know anything about Tai Chi (or any martial arts frankly) so seeing them practice looks more like a choreographed dance routine.
Our hero (Tiger which is also the actor’s name) has trouble holding back his aggression and youthful exuberance to fully grasp the teachings of his Master. You know, like every other martial arts movie ever made.
We then cut to sometime later at a fighting tournament (a legal one) that Tiger is participating in. The best part of this scene is seeing some Master Roshi looking mother fucker as an announcer.
Keanu is watching the tournament on TV and is intrigued that some dude doing Tai Chi is competing. Tiger proceeds to wipe the floor with his opponent, who looks like he should be in the Chinese Village People, and afterwards gives an interview explaining how he wants Tai Chi to be taken seriously as a fighting style. Keanu’s interests have been piqued, and he sends one of his lackeys to make Tiger an offer. I also get the sense that this has to take place in The Matrix, because he does some gesture with his hand, and the TV pauses.
We spend the next ten minutes going through Tiger’s daily routine of delivering packages and chatting up this one secretary who is totally not his girlfriend (yet). We also meet his parents who will probably end up as either bait or motivation at some point later. What solidified for me while watching this section of the movie is how well they’re able to blend old school storytelling with a modern day backdrop. There’s a lot of focus on technology and city life, but all the scenes so far are very formulaic to what you’d see in an old school martial arts flick. Bad guy starts a fighting tournament? Check. Good guy is a headstrong student of a wise old master? Check. The good guy has a love interest who’s not involved with any of the fighting? Do I even have to say check? Okay fine, check. This movie is like those modern interpretations of fairy tales, because if you think about it, the story of a young student proving himself in a crooked fighting tournament is in and of itself a timeless tale that can be interpreted in many different ways. So far, the movie seems to understand that, and is doing a great job of conveying it.
After that, we go back to the female cop who’s still investigating Keanu Reeves (apparently he’s the CEO of some security business) and gets the idea to follow him around until he finds a new fighter. She’ll then secretly recruit that guy as an informant. Great plan, except that you already TRIED that, and it ended up with the rat getting snuffed out by the bad guy!
We cut back to Tiger who has returned home to find a letter informing him that he’s got a mysterious job offer and that a car will pick him up tomorrow. He accepts the offer, puts on a nice suit, and eventually arrives in an empty room in a high rise. He stands in the EMPTY room for a bit, getting scanned by computers in the walls, when out of nowhere, a guy appears behind him and starts going kung-fu on his ass.
Tiger takes care of our mystery attacker, thereby granting him the honor of talking to Keanu Reeves. Neo gives Tiger the chance to fight for him on very vague terms, and sends him home to think about the job. He left out the whole “killing” thing which you’d think you’d wanna say right up front. Then again, I’m not running a fucked up underground fighting ring, am I? Tiger returns home and finds that his master has been slain, and the dojo has been burned to the ground! Except that didn’t happen. Admit it; you were expecting that to happen, weren’t you? Instead, it turns out that the dojo has been condemned and is going to be sold to a redevelopment company.
I absolutely love this twist to the old cliché. Of course nowadays you wouldn’t go to the trouble of killing off the kid’s master to get him to join your illegal fighting tournament. Just throw some bureaucrats at the problem and give the guy some massive debts! The next fifteen minutes are about what you’d expect from this kind of movie. Tiger wins some fights and gets his money, but the brutal nature of the fights is giving Tiger an insatiable blood lust. Oddly enough, Keanu hasn’t asked him to kill anyone yet, but I can only assume that he’s saving that for later. Tiger also learns that his fights are being broadcasted to select people around the world. For some reason, Tiger hadn’t assumed this would happen and doesn’t appear too happy about it.
Despite his discomfort, he still agrees to keep fighting for Ted Theodore Logan, and lives the good life with his newfound wealth. The dojo gets fixed (with the help of his not-yet girlfriend who deflects the redevelopment company), he buys a car, and he even gets his mother a washing machine. However, his master is aware that Tiger is fighting for the money and is slowly losing himself to the violence. This violent streak is even reflected in his regular (legal) tournaments where he keeps attacking after the opponent is down. This is all giving Mr. Reeves a huge evil hard on while he’s watching the footage from all the hidden cameras he’s surrounded Tiger with. I don’t know why Keanu has such an interest in Tiger other than because he’s a bad guy and he loves corrupting people.
Mr. Reeves even has cameras following the cop around, but these are far less interesting to watch because she isn’t doing anything. This is defiantly a weak point in the movie because more screen time than necessary is given to her in order to establish that’s she’s still watching our villain, and yet hasn’t actually seen anything incriminating. We never get the sense that her case is advancing, she doesn’t interact with any of the pertinent characters, and Keanu has her constantly on watch so there’s no way she’s going to get the upper hand on him anytime soon.
Keanu calls Tiger for another fight, but this time it’s going to be different. Instead of in some empty room with cameras in it, they’re going to a badass party boat that has a really nice fighting arena, as well as an audience of rich dudes who want to see poor people fight.
Unlike Tiger’s other matches, this one has a handicap because he has to fight a pair of ass kicking twins simultaneously. For the first part of the fight, they have the upper hand and give Tiger a good ass whopping.
While the action here is great, there is a section where they use a strobe light that’s obnoxious to sit through and could probably trigger a seizure. I get that it’s supposed to disorient Tiger, but it just makes that part of the fight hard to sit through. After getting pounded into the dirt by Thing 1 and Thing 2 over here, Keanu comes by to give Tiger a pep talk which basically boils down to “No more Mr. Nice guy. Go bust some heads!” Sure enough, Tiger hulks out and takes these two down. He doesn’t kill them, but he gets pretty brutal and smashes their heads into the arena floor. After Tiger wins the fight, we cut to him at the legal tournament where he’s about to compete for the finals. Tiger goes way too far and crushes his opponent’s limbs, disqualifying him from the competition. Keanu is so thrilled by this that he makes this very hilarious face.
For some reason, Tiger goes to his Master, and picks a fight with him. I don’t know about this scene. They might have had some beef, but is Tiger REALLY so bad now that he’s willing to attack his Master with no provocation? Anyway, Tiger can’t handle his Master’s level of Tai Chi, and gets defeated in an interesting way. For most of the fight, all the Master is doing is deflecting and stopping the guy’s blows. Tiger goes at him for five minutes, but is unable to land a punch with any impact. It’s fascinating to look at and one of the better fights in the movie so far. Ultimately, it ends with the Master doing a force push and knocking Tiger back ten feet. Huh, I didn’t know Tai Chi was part of Jedi Training.
Tiger goes home to lick his wounds when the lady cop FINALLY contacts him. She tells him that the tournaments are bad and that Keanu is evil and blah blah blah. Tiger blows her off, which once again proves that the cops in this movie are useless. The next day, he visits his not-girlfriend at work, and she says that due to his shameful display at the tournament, that the dojo is gonna get torn down. First of all, they fixed the dojo, so it’s no longer in violation of safety codes. Shouldn’t that be enough to keep someone from taking it away? If I understand the ORIGINAL plan, it was to declare the dojo as a historical landmark so it couldn’t get demolished even if it was out of code. After Tiger’s behavior at the tournament, no one wants to declare it a historical landmark. The thing is, now that it’s back IN code, how can they just take away the land and sell it to someone else? I guess this requires some familiarity with Chinese law, so I’ll let it slide, but it’s still a bit odd. What it basically boils down to is that Tiger’s actions have put the dojo back in danger. Not having any realistic recourse, he decides the best thing to do is to have another fight and let his anger out in the ring. He gets it, and it’s more or less a repeat of the opening scene. The cops know where it is this time and are heading there, while Tiger beats the ever loving shit out of some Russian dude. It’s not even that much of a fight because Tiger basically knocks him down immediately and just punches the guys face into a bloody pulp.
This time, Keanu orders Tiger to finish him, but Tiger hasn’t gone that far just yet and Keanu has to step in once again (wearing his gimp mask) to take out the opponent. Also, the police get there too late because of course they do. They are so freaking useless in this movie that I wish their scenes were just cut out. They contribute almost nothing to this, and I can only assume that the sole reason they’re here is to make the final arrest at the end of the movie. Until then, they’re all just bumbling idiots who are always five steps behind the bad guy.
Tiger wants out, but Keanu ain’t having that shit, so Tiger ends up calling the lady cop. Unfortunately (as we’ve established earlier), Tiger is constantly being watched, and one of Keanu’s lackeys sees the phone call go down. His reaction is priceless.
He meets with the cops, and their plan is to put a tracking device in his phone, but we all know that this has no chance of success because Keanu is way ahead of them! I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a camera inside the police station. Hell, Keanu isn’t even the one to really ruin the plan. The lady cop follows Tiger who’s being driven to the next match. Along the way, his cell phone gets tossed out the window. Lady cop only realizes this after driving past the discarded phone, but is SO distracted by this that she drifts onto the wrong side of the road, barely swerves out of the way of an oncoming truck, and instead drives her car off a fucking cliff.
Oh no, wait. The guy driving the truck was working for Keanu. Okay… that doesn’t really excuse the insane level of incompetence the cops have shown. Hell, it doesn’t even make that much sense. The guy driving the truck wasn’t on the wrong side of the road, she was! Anyway, the truck guy tries to kill the lady cop by choking her to death, but seems to have forgotten that cops tend to have guns, and gets blown away by the completely uninjured detective. For once, the cops have an advantage over Keanu. He believes she is dead, and she’s aware that HE’S aware of the police involvement. What happens next is so god damn amazing, that I wanted to stand up and applaud at this point. Tiger is getting ready for the final fight when he sees this video being shown to the audience. It’s basically one of those videos that profiles an athlete on their rise to stardom, giving some info on their background, their specific skill sets, all that stuff. It’s about him and his journey from a nobody to the fighter he is today. In fact, the video flat out says that Keanu was the one responsible for getting the dojo in financial straits. Tiger’s watching all this and is just mortified. It’s fucking fantastic, with it’s over the top narration and cheesy effects.
Keanu comes by to visit him (or should I say taunt him) and when Tiger charges, he gets a taser right in his chest. Keanu then explains that this was never about televising badass fights, but was about giving the viewing public (i.e. rich assholes) an underdog to root for and watch slowly turn into a killer. Yup. The movie’s big message is about the lengths people will go to give the public what it wants. If you have to destroy someone’s life in the process, well that’s just the nature of the entertainment business. With movies like this, you don’t really expect there to be much of a message other than believe in yourself and listen to your sensei, and the fact that they stuck one in here without making it too obtrusive is very much appreciated. They didn’t have to do that, but doing so showed they had ambitions with this film. Tiger gets dragged into the ring, but refuses to fight the other guy. Honestly, should Keanu have expected anything else?
While avoiding his opponent, he keeps shouting that he’s willing to fight Keanu, and after a few minutes of dancing around the arena, he comes out and does a roundhouse kick on our hero. Not to belittle the awesome skills of Mr. Reeves, but there’s no way in hell he stands a chance against Tiger, and the editing on that kick doesn’t do much to hide that fact. Keanu doesn’t actually get in a full on brawl with Tiger, and instead runs off when the police raid the compound. Everyone gets arrested except for Tiger and Keanu, the latter of which we see swimming his ass to the nearest shore.
We all know it can’t end here, right? Sometime later, Tiger visits the dojo again, but someone shows up and challenges him to a fight! Can you guess who?
Keanu is able to hold his own in the fight scene, and even though you know that Tiger is holding back here, it’s still quite impressive. The camerawork is well done, they throw in just a touch of wirework to give the scene an extra bit of punch without going too far with it, and we even see Keanu go full Nic Cage!
Tiger almost loses the fight until he uses that force push thingy his Master used on him earlier, and knocks Keanu right onto his ass. Not only that, but it completely decimates Keanu’s insides and ends up killing him! His dying words are “I knew you had it in you.” Keanu was ultimately proven right about Tiger having the potential to become a killer. I hope he enjoys that victory while he’s rotting away in a shallow grave. Tiger’s master shows up at this point (long after when it would have HELPFUL), and leads Tiger back into the dojo.
After that we get an epilogue where Tiger was able to broker a deal with the development company to turn the dojo into a cultural center or something, and Tiger ends up with the girl who’s only been in about three scenes.
I absolutely loved this movie. It’s not one of the all-time great ass kicking films, but I will put it up there with modern classics like The Protector and Chocolate. The story is intentionally clichéd to evoke the feeling of old school martial arts films, and instead focuses its energy on creating an interesting world and memorable fight scenes. There are moments of pure cheesy brilliance (most of which surrounds Keanu Reeves) but there are also parts of this movie that are sincere and heartfelt in their devotion to creating a loving homage to the films these guys grew up with. Tiger’s Master for example is one of the best wise mentors I’ve ever seen in a movie. Keanu as the villain is appropriately hammy, with every scene of him bringing something new and interesting to the table. Again, the weakest point by far is the cops. In a movie like this, they should have been much more involved or not have been included at all. It would have helped immensely if the lady cop had a bit more going for her outside of being a determined cop, and I wish she had more scenes with Tiger. Also, the female love interest for Tiger is almost non-existent, but at least they don’t drag her scenes out like the do with the cops. If you’re into martial arts films, this is one you really shouldn’t miss. Keanu has proven himself to be a skilled director with this film, and I’m really interested to see what he’ll do next.