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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Man of Tai Chi' isn't as bad as it could be

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Tiger Hu Chen and Keanu Reeves star in “Man of Tai Chi.” (Radius-TWC)

Man of Tai Chi

(R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

During a five-year stretch in the ’90s that yielded just two major hits (“Speed” and “The Matrix”), Keanu Reeves was Hollywood’s “It” boy. More blandly pretty than ruggedly handsome and in possession of practically zero dramatic range, Reeves was in inexplicably high demand until shortly after the first “Matrix” sequel when he went from A to B then to Z list in what seemed like the bat of an eye.

Like many a shooting-star types before him, Reeves has tried to regain his high-profile several times with no luck and has now chosen the semi-desperate route of becoming a director. This bold career make-over worked wonders for the similarly dramatically-challenged Ben Affleck but probably won’t do the same for Reeves.

To make it clear just how uninterested Hollywood is in Reeves these days, “Man of Tai Chi” was financed by no less than five studios, but only two of them are based in the U.S. The remaining three are all located in China where most of the story is set and where the movie will probably fare the best. Having peaked in popularity in the mid-’70s, martial arts flicks never went away as much as they remain permanently under most moviegoers’ radar and it’s highly unlikely “Man of Tai Chi” will do anything to change that.

Reeves began preproduction on the film way back in 2008 and supposedly waited until screenwriter Michael G. Cooney came up with what Reeves felt was an ideal script before doing any shooting. While that might be the case, it’s more likely it took so long to be made because Reeves is no longer a bankable star and he had to secure the financing piecemeal.

The good news is that “Man of Tai Chi” isn’t as awful as it could have been. As debut efforts go, Reeves doesn’t embarrass himself but doesn’t show us anything we haven’t already seen in hundreds of other martial arts outings. The left-handed good news is that Reeves is a better director than an actor, which isn’t a difficult task. The bad news is that Reeves cast himself as the unconvincing evil foil, Donaka Mark.

Mark heads an underground group that promotes illegal fights via pay-per-view that end with one of the combatants dying. While there are multiple deaths seen in the film, they are probably not what the audience was expecting and it all plays out as something more than a harmless dramatic bait-and-switch. After disposing of his most prized fighter, Mark — while watching a legal Tai Chi match — decides to go a different route and sets out to recruit Tiger Chen — played by an actor named Tiger Chen, an up-and-comer in the sport who is surprisingly naïve and has just a tad more dramatic range than Reeves.

After testing Tiger with a few surprise brawls designed to test his reactions and gauge his small screen “Q” factor, Mark begins marketing him to worldwide audiences and Tiger becomes more-or-less an overnight sensation. While Tiger is on the rise, Hong Kong police captain Sun Jingshi (Karen Mok) — a longtime thorn in Marks’s side — is trying her level best to come up with enough evidence to bust him. Whether intended or not by Cooney, Mark, Jingshi and a few other characters use the words “fight club” far more often than they should and only make more obvious the lazy and thinly veiled “borrowing” of the plot line from a much better film.

Like every other mid- to high-visibility martial arts production, “Man of Tai Chi” will find its audience of mostly men for whom quality is not a pressing concern. They might be let down by the relative lack of violence — which could turn out be a net-plus for Reeves’ die-hard, mostly female fan base who will pay to see him in anything. Someone somewhere out there should take this movie and turn it into a mash-up parody and call it “Crouching Tyler, Hidden Durden.” It is more than ripe for the picking.

Presented in English and Chinese with English subtitles. (Radius-TWC)