Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut pays homage to classic martial arts movies

Believe it or not Keanu Reeves has stepped behind the camera to direct his very own martial arts movie.

Inasmuch as that sounds like the premise to one of those fake fictional films cleverly conceived by television writers for Seinfeld ( à la Death Blow or Prognosis Negative ) it’s real — even if its title sounds equally as cooked-up as the sitcom inventions.

Man of Tai Chi tells the story of a budding student of the traditional martial art style (played by real-life choreographer Tiger Chen) who is lured by riches and reputation into an underground circuit of illegal fighting led by a diabolical mastermind (Reeves). For the actor whose first foray into martial arts was 15 years ago while filming The Matrix making the movie was a long-winding road.

“It started with Tiger” says the laid-back Reeves during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Fest. “He and I met on The Matrix trilogy. Tiger was working with the action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-ping [who incidentally is currently directing the sequel to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon ] and over the course of the years we became friends.”

That friendship would lead to years of discussion about how the pair could reunite after the end of The Matrix trilogy but it wasn’t until Reeves learned Chen’s life story that he knew he had a movie to make. Influenced by the classically trained martial artist’s biography Reeves crafted a cautionary tale “about being consumed by power” and how tai chi represents a balance.

Despite the serious storyline Man of Tai Chi also goes for broke. Reeves couldn’t help but play to the genre’s exaggerated drama — especially in a nod to a few of his favourite films.

“When I was growing up there used to be Hong Kong-style kung fu movies (on one of the television channels)” says Reeves clearly getting excited discussing old cinematic kung-fu classics. “I remember a film called The Five Fingers of Death and of course Bruce Lee’s [ Enter the Dragon ] and I think there was just something about it. I mean fake fighting is fun but the beauty of [martial arts] the exotic aspect to it the dance-quality to it and co-operation even when it was violent; so there were so many elements for me that entertained.”

In a climactic battle the 49-year-old actor takes on Chen in a face-off that apparently took 10 days to shoot. For Reeves the choreography didn’t necessarily keep up with his aging body.

“I don’t have great control so sometimes I kick. I’m bad like that” Reeves says. “[Tiger] had to get kicked a lot [and] sometimes you have to use the flat part of your foot and then I’d get the heel in there [but] Tiger has something like 14 fights and so by the end of it he was [solid].”

Reeves took the over-the-top fight scene just as seriously as his directing role. Surprisingly the man forever known as one-half of the perpetual stoner-buddy team from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is actually an ardent student of film technology demonstrated by his involvement as producer on last year’s Side by Side — a documentary about the history of both digital and celluloid film creation.

In the case of Man of Tai Chi he even looked to one of cinema’s most respected minds for inspiration.

“I’ve worked with so many great directors and someone who really embodied to me the collaboration the aesthetic part but also the internal part — the creative aspect — was Bernardo Bertolucci” says Reeves of the acclaimed Italian director who cast the actor in 1993’s Little Buddha . “Just how he watched and how he directed was very special so I would say that was one of the biggest influences.”