Neo is more interesting than you realized. Last year, Keanu Reeves, once one of the world's biggest movie stars, released Man of Tai Chi, his directorial debut. It's a hard, unpretentious, generally frill-free martial-arts movie about an underground fighting ring, and it was released direct-to-VOD in America. And this is a fight movie: Practically every plot development comes from someone kicking or choking someone else. He filmed it in Hong Kong and mainland China, with most of the dialog in Mandarin and Cantonese; the star of the movie is Tiger Chen, a stunt guy Reeves met when filming The Matrix. (Here, he plays a character named Tiger Chen.) The famous director, meanwhile, cast himself as the villain, the evil, rich foreigner who controls the shady underground fighting ring and kills fighters when they refuse to kill each other. And as it turns out, Ted Theodore Logan makes a hell of a fight movie.
If you still think of Keanu Reeves as an in-over-his-head surfer dude who ruined some big movies in the '90s, you first of all owe it to yourself to watch John Wick, the hard and cheap and nasty revenge thriller that came out this year, and belongs right up there with The Raid 2: Berendal and The Guest on the list of 2014's best action movies. A lot of that is thanks to Reeves, specifically how good he is in the movie's fight scenes: He'll launch himself across a room, grab a faceless assassin in an arm bar, and then shoot him in the head. It's glorious. But John Wick didn't come out of nowhere. If you were paying attention, Man of Tai Chi was right there, proving Reeves' devotion to the cheap, simple, ass-kicking action movie. In a weird way, he might be one of the genre's greatest champions right now. It's not like, say, Brad Pitt is putting himself out there and trying to make badass B-movies right now.
Reeves, of course, has always had a strong action-movie pedigree. He was in Point Break and Speed, after all. And while the Matrix sequels got ridiculous fast, the original was a genre-reshaping classic that affected the way filmmakers approached the genre for years. Reeves gets credit, too, for learning to do fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping's ridiculous kung fu moves, devoting himself completely to the process. He paid attention on that set, too. He took note of what those stuntmen were doing. John Wick director Chad Stahelski was one of the stunt guys on The Matrix, just like Tiger Chen. So The Matrix is still having a ripple effect—not because people are still trying to shoot bullet-time scenes, but because it was responsible for introducing your man to some bad motherfuckers.
Speaking of whom, Tiger Chen doesn't look like much: slight frame, sharp face, goofy hair-flop. And he happens to excel in a martial art that's only barely considered a martial art. A few times in Man of Tai Chi, other characters remark that tai chi is usually considered ornamental or fitness-based. They don't also say that it's the thing your grandma does in the park on Sunday mornings, but the implication is there. In those moments, Chen always says that he wants to prove that there is power in tai chi, and holy shit, does he ever prove it. The style has shown up in martial arts movies before—shout out to Jet Li in Tai Chi Master—but I don't remember it being this fun to watch. Chen does that swirling, nature-minded thing, and his master keeps warning him to stay in control of his chi, but he uses it to fuck people up. The real joy of this movie is seeing Chen pushed into increasingly desperate circumstances and learning just how lethal he can be.
The story is pretty perfunctory. Chen is a delivery boy who practices tai chi in his spare time and tries to help his master stop developers from buying their temple. Reeves sees him competing on TV, barks the word "innocent" at the screen, and decides to make a big project out of corrupting him, inviting Chen to join the security company that seems to be a front for a lucrative pay-per-view underground-death-fight endeavor. There's a great scene where a henchman sends the besuited Chen into a big, gray room, with Chen thinking he's there for an interview or something. All of a sudden, a lady's voice yells, "Fight!" and there's a tatted-up Muay Thai fucker in the room, dragging Chen around by his tie.
Chen gets to like fighting, though, and we see him taking on more and more dangerous opponents, on that classic Bloodsport deadliness-elevation trajectory. He fights a tiny Chinese guy who comes off looking like an absolute badass. He fights a huge Russian mercenary who can't do anything. He fights two guys at once. Near the end, The Raid star Iko Uwais shows up to make a cameo and do a little fighting, and the first time you see his face is a real oh, shit moment.
As a director, Reeves knows that an Iko Uwais appearance is a big deal for action-movie fans, and he treats that appearance with just the right amount of gravity. He also knows that the fights in his movie are the big draws, and he keeps the focus directly on them. The storyline beats—a cop lady trying to infiltrate the fighting ring, Chen's progressive estrangement from his master, Chen getting to enjoy his fighting prowess and his money a little too much—are relatively flat, but Reeves motors right through them. (I do like how Chen's one big ball-out purchase is a new Volkswagen, while we keep seeing Reeves in Lamborghini dealerships.)Yo
Your director also knows how to film a fight. He keeps the cameras steady and the shots long, and he avoids the herky-jerk editing that makes so many action movies incomprehensible. He knows that he's filming people doing incredible things, and he wants to make sure you see every bit of it. Reeves enlisted the help of fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, another guy he met on the set of The Matrix, and this was a good move: Yuen is the guy who put together the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill and Drunken Master and about a million other movies. He might be the greatest movie fight choreographer who's ever lived, and here he's allowed to cut loose, building the fights in intensity until Chen finally has to fight the big guy himself.
Reeves's acting job in the movie is mostly pretty good, considering his character is one-note as fuck. There's an evil-laughter scene that he absolutely cannot sell, and he definitely gets too attached to the phrase "you owe me a life," but he glowers and threatens well enough, moving with a strange, unearthly precision. And it's that final fight where he really justifies the whole enterprise. In the movie, Reeves fights Chen only a few minutes after Uwais fights Chen, and it's somehow still possible to consider Reeves as the movie's ultimate threat: He towers over the hero, and his limbs are longer, but his movements are absolutely icy and precise, no wasted motion. He seems to enjoy fighting. At this point, I'm pretty well convinced Reeves should only make B-movies where he fights all the time. He's just impossibly good at it now.
Man of Tai Chi is a relatively small and unambitious movie, but it's satisfying as all hell—an old story, beautifully told. It has a few great punch-the-air moments, and it's got some of the best straight-ahead fight scenes I've seen in American or Asian action movies in the last few years. Moreover, the mere fact that it exists feels like a minor miracle. Keanu Reeves, fight-movie auteur! Who knew? Who could've possibly known?
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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Previous installments: Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi |Tombstone |Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection| Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor |The Heroic Trio | Safe| Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd| 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master