Underground martial arts fight club hits a wall
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Movie memories can certainly bring out the film geek in the best of us. The very idea of “Man of Tai Chi,” the new martial arts fight fest from director and star Keanu Reeves takes me back to the 1970s, when I was just a little screen rat begging my mother to see any and every movie I saw posters for. One of the most enduring titles for me happens to be a cultish fighter pic – “Kill or Be Killed” (if you look it up on the Internet Movie Database, it is listed under the title “Karate Killer”) – featuring James Ryan as Steve Hunt, the most sought after fighter for a to-the-death martial arts tournament held on a remote island, sponsored by a pair of former high-level figures of the Axis. The rivals seek to find the top contestants to pit against each other in their high-stakes death match. As a young and quite dumb kid who enjoyed nothing more than playacting fight sequences with his buddies, this movie sounded like a model for endless hours of rambunctiousness after a screening or two. A knock-off sequel of sorts followed about five years later, and fortunately I hadn’t quite outgrown my fascination with the sport of fighting, so I took in the second helping (“Kill and Kill Again”) like a starved animal in the wild.
The stories barely mattered. To classify these movies today, they might get slapped with a label like “martial arts porn,” but they have a different following now. Karate and the various martial arts were just developing an audience here in the States during the late 1960s into the early-to-mid 1970s. Bruce Lee had captured our imaginations briefly, but the current frenzy is fueled by the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitions that are on the verge of knocking boxing and wrestling out of the ring. There are fewer rules and a greater sense of blood sport replaces the staged drama.
Yet, the movies drawing heavily upon the fight choreography of mixed martial arts refuse to ignore the old traditions and the spiritual essence at the core of these styles. Honor and peace provide balance to the force of violence on display. And so, a post-“Matrix” Reeves flips the script a bit, playing against type as Donaka Mark, a sinister corporate raider organizing an underground club where matches are fought before a bored audience of wealthy thrill-seekers (either online or in person), but the real aim is not merely the action. Instead, Mark wants to tell a story of a true spiritual warrior’s loss of innocence.
The perfect subject comes along in Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen), an acolyte of the truly peaceful meditative Tai Chi arts, who fights against his master’s wishes to tame the powerful Chi in him. As soon as Mark spies Tiger Chen, the die gets cast. Events are set up to coerce Chen into making choices that will compromise him at every turn, paving the way for the ultimate showdown between Chen and Mark.
All that’s left to enjoy are the fights along the way, which pit the smallish Chen against a rogue’s gallery of anonymous types, each seemingly more unstoppable than the last. The inevitability of the outcome offers none of the rewards of our expectations for Chen to become a whole warrior again because it is difficult to believe that he’s the One, despite his obvious skills. A true “Man of Tai Chi” needs a matrix to give him purpose, not just an evil adversary. I think I learned that in the backyard a few decades ago.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.