Is it my imagination, or are Keanu Reeves' line-readings getting weirder, and worser, as the actor matures?
Not that it matters. In Man of Tai Chi, a glorious romp of a martial-arts thwack-fest, Reeves is the heavy - a sociopathic puppetmaster in a sharp, black suit, who runs an illegal reality-TV service for very rich, very twisted subscribers who want to see two guys do battle to the death.
Reeves, clearly a connoisseur of the Hong Kong action oeuvre, also directs - his first feature, and it's a doozy. Enlisting one of his Matrix colleagues for the title role - stuntman and fight choreographer Tiger Hu Chen, whose balletic and gymnastic abilities more than make up for what he lacks in charisma - Reeves brings together essential chop socky ingredients. There's a sage, skilled spiritual master (Yu Hai), who has taught his pupil well. There's a feisty cop (Karen Mok) with good instincts and a bad attitude toward her superiors.
There are swanky nightclubs and private jets and a 600-year-old temple threatened with demolition by greedy developers.
Chen has found a way to use the ancient art of tai chi not just for its physical and meditative possibilities, but as a super-cool combat technique, too. In a succession of MMA tournaments, he proves himself more than able to bring down his hulking opponents, struck dumb by this small-framed man, his fierce focus, and slo-mo artistry.
Chen's success gains the attention of Donaka Mark (Reeves), who recruits the tai chi talent (day job: courier) for his secret fight club bouts. But Chen has no idea how extensively his life is wrapped up in Donaka's enterprise: His every waking moment is surreptitiously recorded, fodder for an audience of high-rolling viewers, or voyeurs.
Man of Tai Chi delivers the goods, action-wise, with a climactic faceoff pitting the film's two stars: Chen on one side, and Reeves, towering and kind of terrifying, on the other. It's an epic match, the actor punching out his director, and vice versa.
Will Reeves say uncle? And if he does, will it be the most wooden, unwieldy, unconvincing "uncle" in the history of cinema?
Man of Tai Chi *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Keanu Reeves. With Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, and Yu Hai. In Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles, and in English. Distributed by Radius/TWC.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, adult themes)
Playing at: AMC Cherry Hill,
AMC Neshaminy, and AMC Hamilton.