Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
When a well-known actor makes his directorial debut, results can vary. On one hand, it could be the start of a storied career like the one forged by Clint Eastwood, now known almost as well for his directing as his acting (and maybe more respected as a craftsman, too). Others, like John Wayne, can demonstrate a basic understanding of cinematic craft but little else (please don’t watch The Alamo). So what then do we make of Keanu Reeves’ sole directorial effort to date, 2013’s Man of Tai Chi? The end result is a lot like the man himself — underassuming, technically proficient and, most importantly, sincere and full of heart.
Man of Tai Chi is, in true Reeves style, an act of goodwill. Reeves’ martial arts teacher in The Matrix series, Tiger Chen, had been behind the scenes or adjacent to many of the best-loved action films of recent times. Not just the Matrix trilogy but also hits like the Kill Bill films and 2000’s Charlie’s Angels. In true Reevesian fashion, Man of Tai Chi was made as a star vehicle not for Keanu, who plays the villain this time, but for Chen. Why? Well, Reeves and Chen had become good friends, Reeves decided to make the movie, and he wanted to pay his old friend back by giving him the starring role he deserves.
Man of Tai Chi sees Chen play a character of the same name, a mainland Chinese Tai Chi practitioner who spends his days as a delivery man and free time training as the sole pupil under his master at the local run-down temple. Offered a chance (and subsequently blackmailed, albeit with a healthy paycheck) by Reeves’ Donaka to join an underground fighting ring in Hong Kong, Tiger must not only contend with the opponents thrown his way but also his increasing enjoyment of the rights and the risk they carry to let him indulge in his darker impulses. Eventually Tiger must make some choices and face Donaka himself if he is to escape the dark web into which he’s been pulled.
With Man of Tai Chi, Reeves doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel so much as refine and have fun with it. He’s not interested in deconstructing the genre, he’s just interested in telling a story with cool fight scenes. Crucially, Reeves and Chen nail the most important thing about fight scenes in a good action movie — the stakes. Whenever Tiger fights, there are stakes of some kind or another, and our emotional engagement in the story allows us to be further engaged in the choreographed thrills. Not unlike Eastwood from Leone, Reeves has also learned to film fights from the great Yuen Woo-ping. Reeves follows the classic fighting pace observed in Chinese martial arts films — set, rise, twist and tie.
Visually, we’re not bombarded with quick-cutting shaky-cam but rather cleanly shot and edited fights in which we can marvel at the prowess of the performers rather than simply trying to figure out what is going on. Each fight has its own energy and features at least one moment sure to register audible shock; even then, they’re evenly paced throughout the film and never overwhelming.
Perhaps the most impressive work that Chen and Reeves deliver is the changes in Tiger’s fighting style as his mood changes and movie progresses. At the start of the film, Tiger is able to gracefully deliver gentle but powerful Tai Chi moves. As his journey continues, Tiger must not only fight harder but also darker, becoming more vicious and brutal. This happens along a continuum and not simply at the flip of a switch; the fights aid the story and character.
Chen and Reeves also acquit themselves well as hero and villain. Chen’s character is very down to earth. While he doesn’t have the charisma of, say, Donnie Yen, that’s also not the character Chen is playing; he’s just playing a regular guy. Reeves channels Nicolas Cage in a great way and hits just the right mixture of fun, menacing and threatening to keep the audience engaged and on its toes. It’s a heel turn to rival Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Some directors make movies indebted to others but pass off wholesale-cribbed work as some kind of profound statement (looking at you, Joker). With his directorial debut, Reeves pays homage to the martial-arts masters of old but in a humble manner while telling his own story. Reeves and his pal just wanted to make a good movie about martial arts, tell a story about a man struggling and trying to be better, and craft a fun monument to their friendship.
If that isn’t the most Keanu Reeves thing ever, then man, I don’t know. Man of Tai Chi is a hidden gem both in Reeves’ filmography and in the martial-arts canon. It’s the result of a movie made with sincerity and good friendship. If you’re a fan of Reeves or martial arts, I highly recommend this labour of love.