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Of Monsters and Men: Pacific Rim and Man of Taichi

Two of the movies I’ve been waiting for in one weekend. Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D (found the 3D dull, dim, and uncomfortable), and Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Taichi (thankfully in 2D). Both are films I’d like to go see again.

They are both fascinating in that Pacific Rim is the monster (kaiju) movie that Japan could never make, while Man of Taichi is the martial arts (gongfu) movie that Hong Kong could never make. Both borrow richly from their sources, but add something of their own. In Pacific Rim’s case, wads of special effects money and (unfortunately) Michael Bay’s apocalypse movie template. Andy Baio remarked on Twitter that it’s the worst of Transformers, Armageddon, and Independence Day rolled into one. While that’s a fair assessment of its characterizations and plotting, Del Toro at least executes his material as if he’s seen some anime and knows how to shoot a fight so you can actually see it.

What it really needed was a tight script and team dynamics you could both enjoy and invest in. Instead of Michael Bay’s template, I wish they’d taken Joss Whedon’s. But no, it falls back on faceless national stereotypes and comically bad romance tropes. Rinko Kikuchi may have an Oscar, but I wouldn’t trust whoever oversaw her doe-eyed scenes with bland Charlie Hunnam to direct traffic on a one-way street. Perhaps the Mako Mori character was just meant to be younger than Kikuchi looks, but her uncertainty and shyness were incongruous with having the coolest/most badass hair in the movie.

Pacific Rim's leads looking at each other

Character interaction looks much better in stills than in the film

Man of Taichi takes the best of Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak (fighting tournaments with explosive combat scenes), and adds both directorial and visual restraint to a philosophical story layer that HK films sometimes try to do (Ip Man, much of Jet Li’s period work), but almost always too heavy-handedly. For the genre of film that he’s taken on, I think Keanu Reeves has shown himself to be a good director. Not for an actor, or for a Hollywood man, but a good director, period.

Man of Taichi’s star is Tiger Chen, a stuntman that Reeves met during the production of The Matrix. I won’t complain about his performance in the film’s non-fight scenes, because it never gets in the way, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim’s moments of downtime. When he fights, or is seen struggling with the Star Wars-like light vs. dark side moral dilemma of his pugilism, Chen’s placid face conveys exactly the intensity required. In the final moments of the film’s final fight, he uses it as a blank canvas to great effect — much like Keanu Reeves in his portrayal as Neo in The Matrix when we needed to believe a world lay inside a computer. Some see wooden acting, I choose to see inspired detachment.

Man of Taichi movie poster

Reeves is in this film too, as the main antagonist. My viewing companion was not impressed. Maybe I’m just a fan, but again, I found his typically one-dimensional portrayal to be perfect for the film. It’s so hard to see what’s going on behind the rigid, mechanical demeanor that it produces an oppressive sense of mystery, fear, and apprehension whenever he enters the room opposite the human, naive, in-over-his-head Chen. You simply don’t know what Reeves is supposed to be capable of, or if he’s even meant to be human. I felt the whole thing could go From Dusk Till Dawn at any point and literally reveal Reeves as Satan with Krav Maga training. Through the stark presentation, voice effects, sleek dark suits and occasional black mask, bloodlessly pale face, and perfunctory short utterances, you are invited to read his existence in the whole scenario as a let-it-all-hang-out metaphor for demonic evil. All villains are, but this one does it without overacting in the face!

Where Pacific Rim is happy to show great swathes of the world, and then gleefully destroy it, much of Man of Taichi takes place indoors, with only a few establishing skyline shots of Beijing and Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, the sparse fight arenas are all concrete surfaces and sharp corners for flesh to get caught on, and you are constantly made aware of the combatants’ mortality. In Pacific Rim, the robot Jaegers are virtually invincible except when fighting the Kaijus, which are only flesh, and bleed. You could toss a Jaeger through a skyscraper made of the same metals, but it only malfunctions when punched in the face by a tentacle. Like in Man of Steel, which got flack for Superman allowing awesome amounts of collateral damage, Pacific Rim’s environment is an inconsequential foam that inhabits the fight space, to be ignored by everyone except the audience, whose job it is to be overwhelmed by enjoyable particle effects.

In both films, there is a man with a knife. One is played to the hilt by Ron Perlman, who talks a lot, wears gold shoes, sunglasses, and flips a flashy butterfly knife around for effect. I can’t remember if he had a cigar in his mouth but there might as well have been. In the other universe, Keanu Reeves pulls the blade out low at the waist, and stabs silently and mercilessly before you know it’s there. It is beautiful and unintentional asymmetry.

I recommend seeing both. Pacific Rim is a dream come true for many of us who love giant robots and schlocky movies with men in rubber monster suits, but by only improving upon visuals, its clearest future is as an HDTV/4K showcase at your local electronics dealer. I think Man of Taichi might become a cult martial arts classic talked about and recommended to friends for years.

Pacific Rim is obviously out now, Man of Taichi is out in Asia and is slated to be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.

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