Keanu Reeves Talks Man of Tai Chi
by Leigh Singer
In The Matrix, after having martial arts virtually uploaded into his noggin, Keanu Reeves famously declared, “I know kung-fu.” Now, the star is hoping we believe that he knows tai-chi – or at least how to make an action movie from it.
Reeves appeared at the Cannes Film Festival to launch his directorial feature debut, in which he co-stars alongside rising Asian action star Tiger Chen. Reeves plays a Machiavellian boss who tempts a young Beijing man (Chen) into high-stakes underground fighting. A Chinese co-production, largely shot in Beijing and filmed in three languages – Cantonese, Mandarin and English – it’s chock-socky full of action and a big challenge for a first-time filmmaker, even one who’s an onscreen veteran of action movies.
“I want to direct if I have a story to tell,” declared Reeves, an uncannily boyish 48, whose animated words and gestures still recall a slightly slow-motion Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan. “Kung-fu movies are fun and beautiful. As a kid I saw the Bruce Lee films, they were exotic, wonderful and empowering. Then in terms of me doing The Matrix, that was really my introduction into kung-fu. It’s like playing, kind of child-like. Fake fights – that’s fun! But they do hurt…”
The new trailer that screened at the festival doesn’t reveal much fighting from Reeves himself but it and the two exclusive clips shown showcase some serious Tiger workouts. Scene one shows him pitching up in Hong Kong, supposedly for an interview for a security job. Tiger enters a slate-grey executive box room with a mirror at one end, only for his unseen interviewer to suddenly declare “Fight!” as a stocky thug appears behind him and puts him in a choke-hold. And you thought your local job market was competitive!
The second scene shows Tiger now fully part of the underground circuit, having laid out his opponent in a strip-lit bunker-arena. “Finish him!” bellows Reeves’ eee-evil Daneka repeatedly from the control room. Tiger hovers over the prone adversary - but can’t bring himself to deliver the killer blow. At which point a gimp in a black mask emerges and snaps the guy’s neck for him. Honestly, you just can’t get the staff these days…
“I didn’t come here to kill,” complains Tiger to Daneka. “What? You think this is a typical job? You think you can just quit?” Reeves’ maniacal bwa-haa-haa-ing is possibly the scariest thing on show. But the trailer suggests the film is unlikely to stint on breathless, adrenalized action. “[Tiger] has over 11 action sequences in the film, he was pretty heroic,” says Reeves in admiration. “All these strong people would come in and, by the end, they’d say, ‘Oh my God, Tai Chi Chen has broken me…’”
It’s clearly a very personal project for Reeves too, reuniting him with the man who, as part of the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping’s crack fight choreography team, helped train him, and with whom he developed this project over five years.
“Chen was a stunt man at the time,” Reeves explains. “We would train eight hours a day and became friends. He’d tell me stories about his [tai chi] master. His master would sit outside with birdseed in his hand and the bird would fly over to his hand. And his master would take the bird’s chi and it couldn’t fly away… I’d be like, ‘No way!’ And he’d say, ‘Yes…’” We found that we had a shared sense of humour and perspective on life.”
To see if Reeves really knows tai-chi, check out the film when it opens July 5 in China and worldwide this autumn.