Man of Tai Chi is like if Nicolas Winding Refn time traveled 30 years into the past and made a Jean-Claude Van Damme fight movie. But it wasn't made by Refn, there's no time machine, and the star is even better than JCVD in his glory days. It's the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves, and it's a bold, stylish, manly movie about a good guy who gets in over his head after being lured into an underground fighting ring. It's also just really, really badass.
Reeves doesn't actually play the good guy in his own movie, either. He cast Tiger Chen (a member of The Matrix' stunt team) as the likable hero and gave himself the role of the ruthless villain hell-bent on leading Tiger toward the dark side for the amusement of his rich, bloodthirsty customers. If you like martial arts movies, you're not going to find a better marriage of classically Eastern values mixed with kick-ass, modern production values (and minimal wire-fu, thankfully) this year.
But Man of Tai Chi -- available now on VOD -- isn't just a showcase for the best on-screen fighting you'll see this year. It's also a surprisingly complex piece of filmmaking. It doesn't just entertain the audience, it's having a two-way conversation with them. One about violence and entertainment and the undeniable (but costly) value of violent entertainment. If you think it's funny or weird when Keanu Reeves breaks the fourth wall and laughs/screams directly into the camera, that's intentional. He's looking us dead in the eye and laughing along with us as we all get lured into his unique, maniacal and cool world.
We sat down with Reeves and Chen after the film's U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, where we asked the actor turned director about how those meta moments and more landed in his directorial debut.
Movies.com: Have you ever been offered a ridiculous sum by an eccentric foreign billionaire for your time and talent?
Keanu Reeves: I actually have. I once was trying to get money for a film, and however it happened, this guy in Chile said, "Come visit me in Chile and meet my family, spend the weekend and I'll give you all of this money." So it was like a plane, and then a private plane, and meeting his family. He was a very exotic character doing dealings with metals and ores. It was this whole thing. Get on a private jet, then go on a helicopter, and meet his family. He'd come in and out of doors and just disappear and I'd be like, "What just happened?" And then we left and he never gave us any money. It was odd.
Movies.com: Did you use any of that for inspiration for Man of Tai Chi?
Reeves: Maybe the entrances, yeah. You'd wait for him. It would be a room with multiple doors and then he'd come in from the one door you didn't expect, and there'd be like three people behind him doing things. And then he'd disappear, and some exotic champagne would show up. Then they'd be like, "Now, please go to your room and change for dinner" and it would be just his wife and children, so I'd eat with them. Then they'd be like, "Here's this helicopter" and we'd take it to go skiing, and then he'd disappear again.
And what that meant to me is that you were on his agenda. And that, for me to use with Donaka, says a lot about control. Starting with the "Stand on the white line, turn left, turn right"-- Tiger thinks he has free will, and he does, but these are all decisions that are being manipulated because his free will is all leading to the desires that the bad guy knows. His free will is really, "Here, go ahead and choose, but I already know what you're going to pick."
Movies.com: Your character is in a way a director who is giving commands to a character who essentially is an actor for the amusement of others, and it's a role that could easily have been played by you in another point in your career. Were the meta aspects of the movie something that attracted you to the project or was that just an unexpected biproduct?
Reeves: It's one of those things we would run into in the script a lot, and one of the things we wanted to play with was the idea that it was pretty Tai Chi how some of this happens. And what that means is how energies transform, how one things becomes another. It is meta. I mean, Tiger's character's name is close to his name, but also me being the director and then also the actor who is playing the villain who is breaking the fourth wall [Laughs]... you can go in there and do that with the film. It wasn't intentional in the beginning, but as we were developing the story, it developed on its own.
Movies.com: The way this movie has a conversation with the audience is brilliant. It's mostly subtle, but sometimes you do break the fourth wall directly, like when Tiger slaps the camera out of the way. How'd you come to those moments?
Reeves: Ah, you saw that! That was really intentional. I felt like with Man of Tai Chi I didn't have any rules and the film could accept a lot of different cinema, and a lot of different perspectives. So hitting the camera, and having the camera operator go "What are you doing?" and Tiger going--
Tiger Chen: "What? You want me to hit the camera?"
Reeves: I felt, emotionally, that character could do that, you know? It gives you a nice, "Wait, what?" but I felt that the film breaking the fourth wall-- there's a sequence when Tiger is having a flashback and realizing that he's been surveilled and his life has been manipulated, and we go full screen. It's simple things, but there's a complicity to the immersion of the audience with the characters, and the characters with the film. We were hoping to play with that and put it toward the story to add some things to think about.
Movies.com: What was the genesis for this project? How'd you two decide to make it a sort of debut for a new stage in both of your careers?
Reeves: Yeah, how did you get here, Tiger?
Chen: How did I get here? By plane.
Reeves: [Laughs] A very Tai Chi answer.
Chen: Back in the Matrix days we'd talk about doing something like this some day, but we didn't know when that day would be. Whether it would be in two years or 12 years.
Reeves: It was a script that came to me originally from Tiger and his producing partner Daxing Zhang, and it went through many, many, many incarnations to where we landed. For me it was inspired by Tiger and his traditions. He has a master! He studies with him, but he's also a stuntman and a modern guy who made his way to Beijing and had a dream and a passion and he went for it, and the film is hoping to talk about traditional vs. modern, East vs. West, and Tiger is really the wellspring for everything.
Movies.com: Were there so many incarnations because at some point you guys were trying to position it as a bigger studio movie?
Reeves: I mean, like, as an example, in the beginning Tiger had a dojo in mainland China in Beijing and I was a student from the States and he had troubles with the dojo, and that didn't last long. Then we came up with the underground fighting, and we needed a bad guy, but then we came into a mess of censorship stuff. Originally it all took place in Beijing, but in mainland China we couldn't have a corrupt police officer, and we couldn't have underground fighting, so that went to Hong Kong. And so one of these things that happened really opened up the movie in a very Tai Chi way. They came at us with hard style, and we used soft style, and it made the movie bigger.
Movies.com: What's next for you guys? Any updates on Passengers?
Reeves: Brian Kirk is directing, and hopefully Reese Witherspoon is joining. Hoping to do that next year. Before then 47 Ronin, an action film and starring project, is coming out. What's going on with you,Tiger?
Chen: I'm hoping to do an action-comedy movie.
Reeves: He's got this really cool project called Joe's Last Chance, he just needs to put it together. Good luck with that!
Man of Tai Chi is currently available on Video On Demand platforms all over America and will hit select theaters on November 1, 2013.
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