Keanu Reeves’s five-years-in-the-making directorial debut won’t dispel the notion that his acting range begins and ends with monotonous recitations of “whoa.” But this wuxia does establish him as a deft helmer of cinematic combat, reuniting him with such Matrix cronies as legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and doe-eyed stuntman Tiger Hu Chen—the latter playing a version of himself in the title role, complete with the same moniker. When underground fight-club honcho Donaka Mark (Reeves) learns Chen is the rare martial artist who can use the titular discipline to clobber opponents, he recruits the fighter for Web-streamed death matches and becomes the yin to Chen’s peaceful master, incidentally named Yang (Yu Hai).
Thanks to some nimble editing, the film effectively illustrates that tai chi can be a deadly practice as well as a delicate dance, pitting Chen against countless contenders in Mortal Kombat–style duels, right down to cries of “Fight!” and “Finish him!” It’s a pity that Michael G. Cooney’s script tries to fold in police corruption and spell out the irony, with Donaka’s eventual admission that he wanted to broadcast a peaceful man’s loss of innocence. (What a world!) But that doesn’t snuff out the enjoyment of such a refreshingly bare-bones approach to fisticuffs, especially given that it comes from someone whose trademark franchise redefined stylized screen fighting.
Follow R. Kurt Osenlund on Twitter: @AddisonDeTwitt