Tiger Chen is the sole student of his elderly master's Ling Kong Tai Chi style. Whilst Tiger excels in the physical aspects of his training, his master struggles to instill in him the philosophical aspects, and fears for his character. Tiger harbors a determined ambition to prove the martial effectiveness of the style, as he competes in the local Wulin contest.
When the mysterious Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) offers him a "security" job, Tiger seizes the chance to escape his tedious day job as a courier, but when he discovers that the "job" is to become a paid contestant in an underground fighting ring, he refuses to compromise his honor by fighting for money. However, he quickly relents when he discovers that his master's 600-year-old temple faces a demolition order, and realizes that Donaka's money is his only hope of saving the temple.
In Donaka's fighting ring, Tiger is pitted against formidable opponents in brutal, no rules combat. Donaka is clearly grooming Tiger for some specific purpose, pushing him harder and harder. Tiger is well paid for his time, and showers his parents with expensive gifts, but his character begins to darken, and he becomes a more ruthless and cruel fighter. Before long, his brutality sees him ejected from the Wulin contest in disgrace.
When this public shaming tarnishes the name of Ling Kong Tai Chi, costing him the heritage protection order that was protecting the temple, Tiger realizes the error of his ways, and agrees to work with Hong Kong detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Mok) to bring down Donaka's deadly ring.
On the night of Tiger's final fight for Donaka's organization, he discovers that the audience of his fights have not only been watching his fights, but an entire movie of secretly-filmed footage from his life, designed to document the corruption of his character, culminating in his first fight kill, planned for that night. He refuses to fight his designated opponent, demanding to fight Donaka instead. He is able to stall his opponent long enough for the police to arrive and shut down the enterprise.
Only Donaka escapes, and later challenges Tiger himself in a one-on-one showdown in the courtyard of the Ling Kong Temple, where Tiger finally defeats him with a fatal application of the darkest secret of Ling Kong Tai Chi.
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