Keanu Reeves is a man that knows his own limitations. Like him or not, you have to at least respect that he never takes on roles that would be above his level of thespianism, nor does he tackle parts that would compromise his working ethic. If not believable, then at least interesting roles that you would be hard pressed to imagine anyone else pursuing.
Reeves has been out of the spotlight a while now. Recently he raised eyebrows popping up surprisingly in the often engaging documentary Side By Side which ruminates on the process of actual film creation, both digital and photo. He spoke with people as varied as David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh there and provided insights that I hadn't honestly seen in a documentary previously. Easy to recommend, really. Having only a producer's credit there, he stepped behind the camera to direct his passion project, Man of Tai Chi. A film that he'd been wanting to do since working with Yuen Woo Ping on the Matrix films, set in Hong Kong, with a mostly native to Hong Kong cast, not including himself.
Firstly, Tiger Chen is a badass. I'd say it more eloquently if I didn't want to really impart that he is a BADASS. His previous film work is limited to stunts in the second and third Matrix movies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Charlie's Angels as well as acting Hong Kong films Kung Fu Hero opposite Jay Chou and House of Fury. He is a physical powerhouse whose agility really knows no bounds. Part of what so wholly impresses with Chen is his stature. He is not a big man. Hell, he's not even a medium sized man. He appears small and slight so when he really unleashes all that physical insanity your jaw really drops. His fights are impeccably choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, and Reeves is smart to keep the camera firmly implanted in the action. He had originally planned to use a bot & dolly setup that is basically an automaton which handles the camera rig, swinging the viewer in and out of the scene in quarters much closer than a typical Steadicam operator would be allowed to get. Unfortunately when it came to the principle photography, they were unable to use it due to difficulties in getting it to China but Reeves' experience in playing with it succeeds in making the action far more fluid and presentable than you'd otherwise expect. The other smart move here was to not just simply focus on Chen, but to highlight his opponents as well, all gifted martial artists themselves. As an actor, Chen has a silent charisma that I think fits the film exceptionally well. No doubt a presence like Donnie Yen would have spoiled the role.
Secondly, we have Reeves as the bad guy. Snicker if you like, but he truly nails the part. He imparts cold sociopathy, disinterest, disdain, and malevolence excellently. He doesn't venture from the monotone that viewers familiar with his filmography will likely recall here, but it works without question. His scenes are great as well, and help in transitioning and moving the film along naturally. His obsession with Tai Chi since the Matrix is obvious here, and his showdown with Tiger is carried out in appropriately jaw dropping fashion. Next to Chen Reeves is a beast. Several heads taller, and lumbering, but his moves look natural and threatening and the choreography is flawless.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by recognizable faces from the Hong Kong action film community, including a small bit with Simon Yam, who I always get a kick out of in movies. Not used to as great effect as he was in the South Korean produced The Thieves, he nonetheless leaves an impression, along with Karen Mok, the Hong Kong cop out to take Keanu Reeves' Donaka Mark down.
To call Man of Tai Chi the action movie of the year might be pushing it. Drug War was far more compelling and endlessly more complex. However, where Man of Tai Chi succeeds is in smashing the low expectations that I think a lot of people had about this film. It is visceral and laden with tightly executed martial arts fisticuffs of the sort that nerds such as myself love the hell out of. I'd easily put this up with other modern HK flicks like Donnie Yen's SPL or Flash Point. In other words, characterization may be a bit lacking, but it's more than made up for in pacing and explosive choreography. While I didn't expect the movie to be the next Raid, it succeeds hugely by being a very simple little Hong Kong action flick that kicks a lot of ass.