Because I review Blu-ray discs, I feel like I have watched way more martial arts/kung fu movies than usual. I love watching them, but getting my hands on them was a bigger hassle before Blu-ray as they were usually relegated to DVD or from overseas online sites. Now that Well Go USA has been releasing at least a few every month, I can get my fix for the genre, even with varying degrees of quality.
This month sees the release of Keanu Reeves’ directing debut, Man of Tai Chi, and while it may be hitting Blu-ray via Starz/Anchor Bay, the itch has been scratched. It’s just too bad that the enjoyment factor only lasts through the first hour. Reeves has joined forces with the legendary Yuen Wo Ping — best known to American audiences for his work on The Matrix films and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill — to choreograph some visually stunning fight sequences, but unfortunately, the finale falls flat on its face.
Man of Tai Chi refers to Tiger Hu Chen starring essentially as himself as the character Tiger Chen. He spends his days working as a courier, making time to train under the guidance of Master Yang (Hai Yu) at a dilapidating temple. Donaka Mark (Reeves) recruits Tiger for a “security” job, only to find his interview consisting of beating a man to a bloody pulp. Tiger learns that Yang’s temple is in threat of being torn down by developers and joins Donaka’s underground fight club to get the money to bring the temple up to code and spread some money-love to his parents. But soon enough, Tiger finds himself in the fight of his life as Donaka’s motives get darker and darker.
As for the presentation, Man of Tai Chi fights its way onto Blu-ray on a 25GB disc in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. With the film being shot digitally, and slapped onto a disc with limited disc space, at least there were no anomalies to report. There are lots of skyline transitions from daylight to nighttime and back again, but even banding never came through. There was also no noise, crush, nada. Every strand of hair, pore on actors’ faces, costume stitching, and swirling dust clouds are all delivered with impeccable detail. There is a huge amount of depth to the picture, featuring the 3D pop we expect from a Blu-ray presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers every punch, kick, and breaking limb with a great level of LFE. Surrounds seemed mostly used to enhance the music, no matter how over-the-top Chan Kwong-wing’s score gets. Dialogue is always crystal clear, no matter how fractured Tiger’s American accent gets. The subtitles are where things get tricky. While there are additional language tracks in Mandarin and Cantonese, make sure you turn on the English subtitles because Keanu filmed in multiple languages and if the English subtitles aren’t turned on you’ll miss dialogue as it’s not translated otherwise. There are also subtitles in Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing impaired.
The special features are incredibly limited, but considering how boring the end of the film is, at least the features aren’t dragged out. “The Making of Man of Tai Chi” runs almost 8 minutes and basically features Reeves sitting in a director’s chair talking about the plot, its origins, and the excitement of working with Yuen Wo Ping. And for anyone who can’t find Reeves boring enough, does he have an audio commentary for you! Tiger Chen joins him for one of the most abysmal commentary tracks you’re likely to ever suffer through.
Reeves, Tiger, and Wo Ping definitely delivered some incredible fight scenes during the first hour of the film. Unfortunately, once writer Michael G. Cooney’s screenplay starts to get deeper into plot, the film’s own chi gets off balance and it never recovers. Working with cinematographer Elliot Davis, Reeves employs his new filming techniques, but squanders them with the standard action quick-cut slicing and dicing editing by Derek Hui. But you would think Reeves would have learned more than this after starring in the Matrix films.
Towards the end, there’s one of the worst CGI car crashes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Matt Reeves certainly did way better in the assuredly smaller budgeted Let Me In. As it stands, the film does have some cheese factor that carries the proceedings on for a bit, but anyone who’s ever seen a kung fu movie will find absolutely no surprises. This is kung fu filmmaking by-the-numbers, and for a while, it certainly works. But once Donaka becomes a bigger piece of the story and Reeves gives himself more screen time, his own hamminess is just the tip of the iceberg that sinks the whole thing.
The back of the Blu-ray case features a blurb from Movies.com’s Jeff Bayer proclaiming this to be “The best martial arts movie since The Raid.” But Man of Tai Chi doesn’t even come close to the action heights set by Gareth Evans’ brilliant battle royale. For a debut film, this is definitely one of the worst freshman outings I’ve seen, but if anyone is thinking of comparing this to The Raid, then audiences should just pick up a copy of that instead. The sequel will be premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is at the top of my must see list. Those who love action movies and haven’t yet seen The Raid should buy it immediately. As for Man of Tai Chi, if you have a passing interest, it’s a fine blind rental at your nearest Redbox.