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Film / Man of Tai Chi

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You owe me a life.

Man of Tai Chi is a 2013 Martial Arts Movie notable for being the feature directorial debut of Keanu Reeves.

Stuntman Tiger Chen stars as a Chinese delivery boy and student of Tai Chi who enters into an underground fighting tournament against his master's orders in order to win the money necessary to keep the temple where he trains afloat. The criminal mastermind behind the tournament, Donaka Mark (Reeves), is impressed by Tiger's fighting abilities, and pushes him to fight more and more, to the point where Tiger begins to risk losing his soul to violence. In the meantime, Detective Sun Jing Shi of the Hong Kong police investigates Donaka Mark, over the objections of her superiors, ultimately trying to recruit Tiger into her efforts to bring Donaka down.

The film received mostly positive reviews, praising Reeves' direction and the fight scenes choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Both Tiger Chen and Yuen Woo Ping had previously worked with Reeves on The Matrix.


Not to be confused with Tai Chi Master or Tai Chi Zero.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Action Girl: She's no martial artist, but Sun Jing Shi earns major points when she blows away the assassins that Donaka Mark sends to kill her.
  • Action Prologue: The film kicks off with Sun Jing attempting to track down Donaka's latest fight, intercut with the actual fight occurring.
  • Aerith and Bob: Most of the characters in this film have fairly typical Chinese names, and the various foreigners (Uri Romanoff, for instance) have names that fit their culture. This makes Tiger's name stand out. Donaka Mark is also playing with this trope since he's an American, but using the Chinese custom of listing his family name first (probably because he's lived in Hong Kong for over 15 years). Nobody on-screen calls him by his given name of Mark.
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  • Affably Evil: Pong, the cameraguy. While chuckling at his antics it's easy to forget that he's tasked with keeping tabs on underground fighters 24/7. He even nonchalantly raps in the car just before enacting the plan to kill the detective tailing him.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Donaka Mark. He's doubtless a sadistic sociopath, but there seems to be something else wrong with his psyche as well. He's emotionally stunted, speaks only in short commands, repeats himself often, and is rather awkward in general.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Donaka Mark. His name is Japanese-sounding (and it's possible it's presented Japanese-style, with his family name first), and he's played by ethnically ambiguous Keanu Reeves.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Tiger's desire to prove his school's fighting style's merit is looked down upon by his master.
  • Arc Words: "Finish him!"
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: To quote Donaka, "you're not a warrior... you're a rat" to a fighter who failed to finish his defeated opponent.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: The film chronicles Tiger's evolution into one of these, coming to a head when he challenges his master over their differences in philosophy. Master Yang views Tai Chi as philosophical and meditative; Tiger only cares about power.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Donaka Mark is both the leader of the corporation and the toughest opponent Tiger faces in the movie.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Tiger's first opponent thinks this about tai chi. He says it's only for show. Tiger's goal is to prove him (and people in general) wrong, that it is a viable combat style.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Tiger Chen.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit:
    • Subverted and deconstructed. Tiger shows up to his "interview" in what is presumably his best suit. Subverted because it is not a nice suit by any means. Deconstructed because the beginning of the fight is almost exclusively his opponent controlling the fight by holding onto his necktie.
    • Donaka always dresses well, but sheds his suit by the time of his and Tiger's fight.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Downplayed. Donaka manages to get Tiger to kill. Even though he's the one killed, he doesn't seem to mind, as his goal was the corruption of an innocent. The fact his last line was seemingly gloating about being killed supports this. Though given that Tiger recovers from this act, and is moving on with his life by the end, means that Donaka ultimately failed to scar him forever.
    • Also, Tiger only killed out of self-defense as Donaka was clearly threatening his life.
  • Balls of Steel: One of Tiger's opponents (implied by his mannerisms and fighting style to be a monk) tanks a kick to the nuts without even skipping a beat.
  • Bash Brothers: Zi-an and Zi-hou. Their exact relationship isn't clear, but their elaborate handshake and the fact they wordlessly coordinate their attacks indicate they fight together often.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Sun Jing's car gets run off the road, flips many times down a hillside, and somehow looks 100% pristine immediately after, with no physical ailments when she moves as well.
    • Donaka also swims from Hong Kong to the mainland, and arrives with perfect hair.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: At least part of Tiger's motivation for entering the tournament is to remind people that Tai Chi is a serious form of martial arts, and not simply an exercise technique.
  • The Big Bad: Donaka Mark, who is behind almost all the film's unpleasantness.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Donaka and his men have infiltrated every level of Tiger's life, recording everything he does and broadcasting it to their audience.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Donaka Mark speaks only English (as do many of his employees), while Tiger Chen and most of the other Chinese characters speak only Chinese.
  • Bits of Me Keep Passing Out: During the fight with the monk-ish challenger, Tiger's left shoulder is dislocated and the arm is rendered useless until he pops it back into place.
  • Blood from the Mouth: The secret move that Tiger's master uses against him, and that Tiger later uses against Donaka, causes this, a few moments after it hits.
  • Blood Knight: Donaka Mark seems to love violence for its own sake, and wants to force others to see the world through the same lens that he does. Tiger Chen also veers dangerously close to this as he becomes more and more eager to fight opponents.
  • Co-Dragons: Donaka has an older gentleman who serves as a sort of Battle Butler of his and The Cracker Pong, who serves as his eyes and ears.
  • Color Motif: When Tiger is using the serene style of Tai-Chi, he wears a gentle shade of blue, but when he gets increasingly more violent and brutal, he switches to black. He switches back to blue by the film's end. Fittingly, Donaka Mark is frequently wearing black.
  • Cool Mask: Donaka Mark wears a black mask whenever he enters the ring. Tiger rips it off in the first moments of their bout.
  • The Corrupter: Donaka Mark's single motivation in life seems to be corrupting the souls of the innocent until they become killers.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Donaka Mark, who operates in China under the auspices of running a multinational corporation.
  • Covered in Scars: Russian mercenary Uri Romanoff, whom Donaka intends to be Tiger's first kill.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Donaka has a rather absurd amount of counter-measures and resources set up for his tournament.
  • Cross Counter: Tiger's second underground fight is won when both he and his foe kick simultaneously. Tiger hits his opponent's head. His opponent only hits the ground.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Tiger begins his fight with mercenary Yuri Romanov by gouging out his eyes with his thumbs. Things don't get better for Yuri. The previous fight with the Bash Brothers starts as a Curb-Stomp Battle for them, but mid-way through swiches to a Curb-Stomp Battle for Tiger.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: The police note that Donaka Mark is incredibly rich and powerful with his legitimate business and doesn't need the illegal revenue from the pit fights. They're correct, Donaka's not in it for the money he's in it for the savagery.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: Tiger is alternating between no-holds-barred underground fights and a strictly regulated national tournament. As he becomes more used to fighting for his life, he begins to bring Unnecessary Roughness into the tournament, which leads to his disqualification.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Due to its lethality. Tiger's master uses it against Tiger early on but doesn't connect and it still causes severe bruising and Blood from the Mouth. It's only used in earnest when Tiger kills Donaka.
  • Death Seeker: Donaka Mark during the film's finale, when he tries to force Tiger to kill him.
  • Determinator: Sun Jing Shi is one when assigned a case, doing everything she can to bring in Donaka Mark, even going behind her superior's back to do it. Tiger is also an example, specially noticing how many hits he takes in the final fight.
  • Disappointed in You: Pong when he sees Tiger going to the police, he lets out a groan and seems bummed at the change of heart.
  • Dirty Cop: Wong, Sun Jing Shi's boss is in Donaka Mark's employ and uses his influence to stymie investigation of his activities.
  • Dramatic Dislocation: See Bits of Me Keep Passing Out; Tiger gets his shoulder dislocated during an underground fight.
  • Dual Boss: Much to Tiger's surprise, his fight against Zi-an and Zi-hou.
  • Dull Surprise: Donaka Mark, courtesy of Keanu Reeves. In this case, however, it's used quite effectively, as it makes Mark come off as emotionally shallow and sociopathic.
    • Tiger himself is also largely restrained. Except when he's in a berserk rage, or with his girlfriend.
  • Emotionless Girl: The announcer for the fights speaks in a monotone without ever changing her facial expression and shows no concern backing away from the engaging fighters. Even as she's arrested, she simply stares at the officer pointing a gun at her, crosses her legs, and stops filing her nails.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the first few minutes of the movie, Donaka Mark enters a room with one of his fighters and proceeds to brutally stab the man to death as he comments that he is not a warrior, but a rat. Then he says he needs a new fighter, and gets in his sports car and drives off without a qualm. This scene tells you all you need to know about Donaka Mark.
    • Tiger's ECM consists of a sequence showing him running around trying to balance his day job as a deliveryman, his Tai Chi, his parents, and his girlfriend.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • As Tiger gets more and more brutal in the legal fights the referee physically has to restrain him from attacking a downed opponent. After maiming another, the ref disqualifies him.
    • Though Tiger's penchant for violence and use of Tai-Chi as a means to harm people puts he and his master at odds; Tiger still bows respectfully to him before and after their fight.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Indonesian that Tiger faces in his penultimate fight had no problems with trying to kill Tiger. However, once he realizes that Tiger does not want to be there, he backs off, forcing Donaka to enter the ring himself.
  • Evil Costume Switch: Tiger wears white at the start of the film like his master, only to begin wearing darker colors as he continues to compete. Before one of his final matches (where he's expected to kill) there's a black and red outfit hanging up for him to wear. Justified by the fact that Donaka Mark is selecting Tiger's clothes for him, and is using it to symbolise his descent into darkness.
  • Evil Laugh: Donaka Mark lets one out (in vintage Keanu awkwardness) when Tiger wants out of the fighting ring.
  • Evil Wears Black: Donaka Mark wears black almost exclusively, and decorates in black and grey. Also see Evil Costume Switch.
  • Eye Scream: Tiger gouges out Uri Romanoff's eyes early in their battle, securing his own victory.
  • Fatal Flaw: Tiger's anger, which comes to dominate him as the film progresses.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Donaka is unfailingly polite.
  • Fight Clubbing: Of the "underground gambling on fights" variety.
  • Final Boss: Donaka Mark intended the Indonesian fighter to be one for Tiger, but ultimately takes the role himself.
  • Finish Him!: Donaka's preferred way of ending his fights is to demand the victor kill the other fighter, even using this exact phrase at one point.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Donaka dies happy, having forced Tiger to kill.
  • The Heavy: Donaka Mark, whose plans for Tiger drive the plot of the film.
  • Heroic Second Wind: While the reasons are decidedly unheroic, the most obvious example is the fight against Zi-an and Zi-hou, where Tiger is knocked out of the ring and isn't moving until Donaka asks him if he's afraid of what he can do to them.
  • Implacable Man: Donaka Mark becomes one of these during his battle with Tiger at the end. He's not as fast as Tiger, and his movements are stiffer, but nothing that Tiger does will make Donaka stay down, or even seem to inflict any lasting damage. As the fight progresses, Tiger is visibly getting tired, while Donaka is unaffected and keeps right on coming.
  • Irony: Twofold:
    • Tiger starts out wanting to prove the strength of Tai Chi, only to later rely on blending in other styles to win. Then, despite Tiger besting fighters around the world with his new style, his old master still defeats him in a spar using pure Tai Chi (thus proving its strength to Tiger).
    • Also there's Tiger raising money in tournaments to save the Tai Chi tradition while simultaneously abandoning its fundamentals. Both his master and love interest call him out on it.
  • Heel Realization: Tiger Chen after the fight with Uri, and he sets to make amends.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Turns out killing someone didn't corrupt Tiger. Why? Because Donaka forced him to do it in self-defense, not murdering a defeated opponent.
  • Killing in Self-Defense: Tiger is forced to kill Donaka as Donaka would not stop trying to kill Tiger himself.
  • Lack of Empathy: Donaka Mark displays a severely limited affect and emotional range, empathizing with no one, and always trying to drive his fighters to kill. The other people in his employ display a similar callousness.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Right before the final tournament fight, we see a small video retelling Tiger Chen's story in a dramatic manner, greatly resembling a movie trailer. The video even ends with a Title Drop ("Tiger Chen. Man of Tai Chi"), and Donaka Mark, played by Keanu Reeves (the movie's director), enters the room and asks if Tiger liked the video.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Tiger Chen fights more calm and restrained in the movie's early fights, but when he squares off against the Bash Brothers (and is subsequently losing), he decides to go all out, and massacres both of them .
  • Made of Iron: One of Tiger's adversaries is able to tighten his muscles and deflect most attacks, though he has a Logical Weakness when it comes to throws and grapples. Tiger Chen and Donaka Mark themselves are milder examples, tanking a remarkable amount of damage without slowing down.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Donaka Mark, who is revealed to have been the one who had Tiger's temple scheduled for demolition.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Donaka Mark, who plays on Tiger's desire for respect and his need to save his temple in order to lead him down the path to self-destruction.
  • Mighty Glacier: Donaka, compared to Tiger. His attacks seem to do much more damage, but he's noticeably slower.
  • Moral Event Horizon: In-Universe, Donaka is trying to drive Tiger past the MEH by getting him to kill in the ring. See the YMMV page for more on that.
  • Motive Decay: Tiger joins up with Donaka in order to earn enough money to save the temple, but discovers he likes the fighting and stays in because of that. Eventually it is revealed that Donaka was explicitly invoking this, and wanted it to culminate with Tiger becoming a killer.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Tiger is about to kill the mercenary Uri, he stays his hand and acquires a look that says this trope, realizing just the monster he was becoming.
  • Neck Snap: How Donaka finishes off challengers that his fighters refuse to kill.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight: Donaka dominates his real fight with Tiger, until he pulls out a knife. At which point Tiger uses his Dangerous Forbidden Technique and OHKO's Donaka. Of course, this may have been his plan all along.
  • No-Sell:
    • The monk-like underground fighter doesn't react to most of Tiger's blows. Including a Groin Attack(combined with Sickening "Crunch!").
    • Donaka no sells most of Tiger's moves during their final faceoff, forcing Tiger to return to his original Tai Chi style in order to do any damage.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Tiger's first opponent set up by Donaka manages to appear behind Tiger despite him being in an open room, facing a mirror, because the camera is zoomed on his face, despite the camera also showing us that the room was empty instants earlier. Later in the same scene, Donaka's elderly minion appears in the room as soon as Tiger wins, albeit with a previously-hidden door behind him.
  • Old Master: Tiger's Tai Chi master is a fairly archetypal one.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: In the battle against the Bash Brothers, Tiger is convinced to fight with all his strength, and after that decision is made, an extremely potent latin chanting kicks in as he demolishes both opponents.
  • Only in It for the Money: Why Tiger initially joined Donaka's underground tournament. Eventually he starts to like the fights.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Donaka's older minion says precisely one word in the entire film, as the cops are closing in; "Go." Donaka doesn't argue, just immediately leaves.
  • Pet the Dog: The Indonesian fighter Tiger faces was perfectly okay with the idea of a Duel to the Death, but refuses to press the attack (despite Donaka's orders) once he realises Tiger has no interest in fighting him.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: One of Donaka's Co-Dragons, Pong, is this.
  • Police Are Useless: Averted by Sun Jing Shi who helps Tiger Chen bring Donaka Mark's operation down, despite the objections of her crooked superior officer.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Invoked and ultimately avoided. Donaka Mark is trying to turn Tiger's life into one of these, and nearly succeeds, leaving him severely emotionally damaged. However, in the end Tiger reclaims the moral high ground, helps the police bring Donaka's operation down and only kills when there is literally no other choice.
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: Invoked. Tiger's master fears that this is what is happening to his student, and fights him in an attempt at stalling it.
  • Sanity Slippage: Tiger's self-control slips badly over the course of the film, as his rage comes to the fore.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Tiger's love interest, a girl who works at a government office. We know that she's pleasant and willing to help him out, but little besides that.
  • Saving the Orphanage: The reason Tiger gives in and competes for money is to raise enough money to save his temple from a demolition order.
  • Scary Black Man: One of Tiger's opponents is a huge black boxer who seems to be giving him a good tussle and certainly looks the part.
  • Sibling Team: It isn't stated flatout, but Zi-an and Zi-hou are a pair of Bash Brothers who share a last name, indicating a familial relationship of some sort.
  • Silent Antagonist: Most of the fighters Tiger battles either limit their conversation to "hi-yas" or don't speak at all. Most of Donaka Mark's other employees, are also eerily silent.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: The film portrays Tai Chi in this manner which is consistent with real life. Most of Tiger's moves are fairly simple blocks and attacks and he generally avoids anything flashier but his incredible skill and athleticism as well as how the fights are filmed make it very much this trope.
  • Sinister Surveillance: Donaka has a truly baffling amount of cameras set around, and one of his minions, Pong, spies on Tiger 24/7.
    • Magical Security Cam: During the montage video just before the big fight, several of the angles are the exact same ones the audience saw earlier in the film, mixed with realistic surveillance footage. In one shot, Tiger was walking directly towards the camera's location, which would've been in plain sight.
  • Slasher Smile: Donaka Mark cracks out a great one during his battle with Tiger.
  • The Sociopath: Donaka Mark. He's a sadistic, murderous Blood Knight of the highest order, who displays almost no emotion other than the glee he takes in corrupting others.
  • Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred!: Donaka Mark's goal in the final fight, as made clear by his frequent demand of Tiger to "show him". He succeeds in the end
  • Suicide by Cop: Donaka chooses Suicide by Tiger Chen.
  • Technical Pacifist: Tiger spends most of the film as one. He's willing to beat his opponents bloody, but he will not kill. Donaka Mark thinks that with a little push they can get past that last part.
  • The Power of Hate / The Power of Love: The movie's recurring theme is comparing which of the two is more efficient.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Tiger and his master both advocate this. Donaka Mark feels differently.
  • Title Drop: In the trailer-esque video Donaka made "Tiger Chen. Man of Tai Chi", and soon after by Donaka himself, who comments "I want to see a pure, good-hearted Man of Tai Chi become a killer."
  • "Truman Show" Plot: What Donaka does with promising fighters. He follows them exhaustively and makes them into a pay-per-view show so that people can watch as they delve into darkness.
  • Unnecessary Roughness: Tiger gets thrown out of the national tournament he was competing in after he snaps and breaks an opponent's arm. It's the single biggest sign that his fights for Donaka are affecting his mind.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Tiger enters one of these during his battle with Uri Romanoff, swiftly defeating him.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story is partly inspired by Tiger Shen's life.
  • Villainous Breakdown: You can visibly see Donaka becoming more unhinged as Tiger refuses to kill, and by the movie's climax, he's pretty much on a rampage.
  • You Are Already Dead: The Ki Manipulation technique The Master uses doesn't necessarily kill its opponents, but it damages them severely. In the spirit of the trope, it takes several seconds for the damage to register in the opponent. Tiger uses a lethal variation to kill Donaka in the climax.
  • You Have Failed Me: Donaka Mark kills Chi-Tak for refusing to commit murder in the ring. "Chi-Tak, what happened? You let me down."
  • You Will Not Evade Me: During the final battle, Donaka lands a devastating blow that knocked Tiger back and off his feet. Rather than allowing Tiger the breathing room, Donaka quickly catches Tiger's foot and pulls him back.