Keanu Reeves' martial arts movie Man of Tai Chi marked a high point for China-US co-productions - yet bombed at the box office

Tiger Chen stars in Man of Tai Chi, a 2013 film directed by Keanu Reeves.

Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut could have been a critical disaster. A bilingual martial arts movie set in mainland China and Hong Kong, it sounds, at best, like an ego trip and at worst like cultural appropriation.

But just as Reeves has always stood slightly apart from the rest of the Hollywood A-list, Man of Tai Chi is a Chinese-American co-production with a difference – the film is actually pretty good. It’s certainly hard to picture another Western star making such a movie with as little fuss and fanfare. Just imagine how boring it would be with Brad Pitt at the helm, or how bonkers with Nicolas Cage ?

Sleekly made and sharply choreographed, the film follows a Chinese tai chi expert (Tiger Chen, playing a version of himself) through the ranks of an underground fight club run by a shady Hong Kong businessman (Reeves). This involves him effectively selling his soul – watch for the 666 number plate on a henchman’s car – by compromising the integrity of his fighting style to advance through the contest.

This is the opposite of how Reeves, that most humble of performers, has conducted himself over his career. Known for his thoughtful demeanour (hence the “Sad Keanu” meme of 2010) and quiet decency, he seems oddly unaffected by stardom considering The Matrix trilogy made him one of the highest-paid actors of all time.

At one point in Man of Tai Chi , Karen Mok Man-wai’s cop asks why a millionaire would risk everything to run an illegal martial arts tournament. The same could be asked of Reeves’ decision to make the film in the first place, but then he has always taken his own route. Who else would follow Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure with My Own Private Idaho , an LGBT drama based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV , or write a grown-up picture book on the philosophy of suffering called Ode to Happiness ?

Man of Tai Chi may not tread new ground, but it’s made with care and respect, and has its director’s fingerprints all over it – not something you usually see in productions spread across continents.

Reeves met Chen while working on the Matrix films – he was part of a stunt team overseen by Yuen Woo-ping , the legendary Hong Kong choreographer. They became friends and started to develop the story together. Chen even has something of Reeves’ impassive charisma, and his mop of black hair resembles the style favoured by Reeves’ character Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure .

But it’s in the arena that Chen – and the film – really come to life, in a series of imaginative, tooth-and-claw scraps orchestrated by Yuen. Reeves even gets his hands dirty in the epic final battle, which took 10 days to shoot and saw the actor doing 90 per cent of his own stunts, according to Chen.

When asked about directing himself as an actor, Reeves is typically self-deprecating. “It was OK, yeah,” he told Vulture . “Reeves comes prepared, he knows his lines, he knows what he’s doing.”

Tiger Chen (right) and Yu Hai in a still from Man of Tai Chi.

He certainly does. But it takes a cameo from Iko Uwais, star of The Raid (2011), another excellent martial arts movie made by an outsider – in this case Welsh whizz Gareth Evans – to put Man of Tai Chi in context.

“It’s touched a lot of people in Asia because of what it is,” says Reeves. “You know, the idea of a Westerner coming over to tell a story of tai chi, but through this new perspective. It’s just never been done before, this movie. It’s never been done before. It’s an exotic bird.”

Unfortunately for Reeves’ fledgling directorial career, the film bombed at the Chinese box office and was barely released in America. Some exotic birds, it seems, just weren’t meant to fly.

Keanu Reeves in a still from Man of Tai Chi.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.