First-time director Keanu Reeves teams up with Matrix alumni Tiger Hu Chen and Woo-ping Yuen to create an action-packed film about the true lessons of Tai Chi and the dangers of losing yourself when you attain great power.
Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Chen) is a mild-mannered worker for a courier delivery service in Beijing. In his spare time he studies English and practices Tai Chi with his master. Struggling to find the proper self-control needed to master the art, Lin-Hu enters a televised fighting competition. There he is spotted by Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a mysterious wealthy businessman, and receives an invitation to join an illegal underground fight club. Lin-Hu initially declines the offer, as using Tai Chi to fight in such a manner would be disrespectful, but ultimately cannot pass up the financial rewards he would receive. He agrees to fight on the basis that he will use the money to help save his master’s temple from being demolished, but as his success grows, the real struggle is inside his head, as he begins to lose himself and his principles. The battle is not with his opponent but with himself as he edges closer to killing for sport.
One of the strongest elements of the film is that of the fight scenes. They are well-choreographed, feel natural, and look improvised, although several scenes where wire work was used were noticeable. The scenes are elemental to the story in that they reflect the psychological progression of Lin-Hu. He drifts farther from his passive tendencies and becomes more aggressive to the people around him. This translates to his fighting style, as he evolves as a fighter to become more combative.
While in a way predictable, the script was still strong and cohesive. The structure was conclusive in that it fully resolvs the arc of the characters set out in the beginning. Lin-Hu’s internal conflicts progress and come to a logical outcome. There comes a moment when the stakes are so high that Lin-Hu has to make a choice if wants to go over the line or pull himself back. This leads to the revelation of Donaka’s true intentions and the driving force behind the thrill seekers from around the world.
The positive elements of the film however, could not save it from becoming average and mediocre. This is a sturdy first effort from Reeves but it has the feeling of being a novice film playing it safe. It is not overly layered or complex and it does not push any boundaries into new ground for the genre. It achieves the goals it sets out to accomplish in the moral lessons it is trying to teach the viewer and is enjoyable entertainment, but ultimately is forgettable. At times it feels too much like a personal passion project.
This should be adequate stepping stone for the director to continue his new-found passion for being behind the camera. We see him using the experience, knowledge, and skills he has gained from the many great filmmakers he has collaborated with to make competent work but in the end would do well to be bolder in the future.