Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. The week just ended: Keanu Reeves has spent some 20 years now as a sometimes hand-to-hand combat god, as John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum so vigorously reminds us. He's so committed to this genre, in fact, that it's the subject of his first (and so far, only) trip behind the camera.

Casting the empty-faced, taciturn stoner-philosopher Keanu Reeves as an arch-capitalist villain is such a perfect idea that it's a little stunning that it took so long for it to happen. Unless I'm missing something, it wasn't until 2013's Man of Tai Chi that Reeves got to play his very first role as an an unambiguous bad guy (in the intervening years he's had a couple more chances in small roles in The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch, both from 2016), and he takes to the role like a duck to water, with his natural stillness as a performer beautifully combining with the script's conception of his role - Donaka, the owner of a transnational security firm based in Hong Kong, who runs an underground fighting ring on the side - as a imperturbable sociopath of a businessman. When Reeves goes full-on angry, it doesn't manifest as hammy menace, but the peevish frustration of a man so accustomed to throwing money at problems that he's genuinely lost the ability to think of his enemies as anything other than pests to be dealt with quickly and brutally. Honestly, it's as good a performance as Reeves has ever given in a movie.

One wonders, perhaps the only way this performance could have happened was under the hand of a director with particularly keen insight into Reeves's screen persona and limitations as an actor: Reeves himself. Man of Tai Chi was the actor's first turn in the director's seat, and six years later, there hasn't been another, which is at any rate a real damn shame. Man of Tai Chi doesn't suggest a Wellesian intuition about what cinema can be made to do, or anything like that, but it does suggest that Reeves is a good collaborator who knows how to rely on great crew heads to help get the most of a pretty basic concept for a movie: a young man being trained in fighting by an old monk gets dazzled by the money thrown at him by the bad guy, and when he realises what a dark, horrible world he's ended up in, struggles to return to the light. You can find the same plot pretty much all throughout the history of the Hong Kong martial arts movie, and Man of Tai Chi is content to be nothing but a well-made throwback to that history. Whether it gets there is another question, one that I'd be inclined to answer with a drawn-out, uncomfortably non-committal, "well, sometimes.Β Mostly."

The film exists in large part because Reeves wanted to do something nice for his friend Tiger Chen Hu, who served as his advisor and trainer on The Matrix and its sequels, while working as assistant to the legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. In Man of Tai Chi, Chen plays a character overtly modeled after himself, Tiger Chen Linhu, a student of a 600-year-old branch of tai chi; I do not suppose that Chen's path through life was quite as melodramatically intense as the fictional Tiger's, which involves falling under Donaka's influence and using his primarily defensive martial art to beat the paste out of a succession of practitioners of other arts. All while having only the most selfless motivations (saving the temple where he's learned, keeping his parents comfortable, etc.), but of course the movie's big question is whether or not there can be selfless motives when it comes to exploiting the nobility of a spiritual practice like tai chi for violent spectacle. To interrogate this question, the movie stages almost non-stop examples of violent spectacle.

Which is, to be fair, a central tension for martial arts films much older than Man of Tai Chi, so I'm inclined to silently overlook screenwriter Michael G. Cooney's hypocrisy on this point. What matters, ultimately, is not whether the film hangs together thematically or as a psychological study (it doesn't on either point; Chen is a phenomenal martial artist, but he's not even a good enough actor to out-emote Reeves), but whether it has the goods as an action film. This it does, to an exemplary degree. It's obvious that in constructing the many fight scenes that structure the film, Reeves and company had two goals: first, to pay tribute to the aesthetics of the 1970s Golden Age of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, and second, to make sure that each and every single fight looked differently. The first goal is achieved simply as can be: cinematographer Elliott Davis leans on crash zooms, the film indulges in a wide range of garishly-colored settings that alternate with the austere grey of the room where Tiger conducts all of his fights for Donaka, the characters, especially Master Yang (Yu Hai) of the tai chi temple, speak mostly in aphorisms or violent outbursts. The goal is achieved with presumably less simplicity, but no less success. This is a tremendously good fighting film. Right at the start, when Tiger demonstrates his skill by dodging his master's pole thrusts, Man of Tai Chi is already using wide-angle lenses and a fascinating editing regime (by Derek Hui) to help creative a subjective depiction of the action. Throughout, the cutting and camera positions seem always to react to the fighters, never to anticipate them, letting the movement of the fight push us in the direction we need to go. If there is one clear way in which Reeves-the-director reveals his affinity to acting, I think this is it; the camera positions always seem very mindful of how actors orient themselves to the camera, always trying to stay out of their way and showcase their best sides simultaneously. It's a strong approach in general, but it yields especially strong benefits in the fight scene, which aren't jaw-dropping "you've never seen this before" kind of affairs, but instead showcases for really fine work by really fine performers executing impressively precise high-speed movements.

The film is thrillingly satisfying action cinema in these moments; but unfortunately, these are not the only moments. The problem is that it has a plot too. This is the longstanding problem of many genres, and the halls of martial arts cinema are crowded with films whose divine setpieces have to contend with banal storytelling. Man of Tai Chi somehow makes it worse, though. The story doesn't really center on Tiger, but on Shi Sun Jung (Karen Mak), an inspector with the Hong Kong PD who has been right on the verge of busting Donaka's fighting ring for a while, but whose mole in his organisation was just recently executed. Mak fights hard to sell this material - she's undoubtedly doing the best acting in the film - but it's not very interesting material. And it's pushed from "not very interesting" into "actively annoying" by the fussy, fidgety way it's been cut. At least the old '70s and '80s films this dreams of knew to just quietly plow through the dialogue sequences as crisply as possible. Man of Tai Chi seems to honestly suppose that by chopping everything into tiny little jumpy fragments, it can actually make these sequences fun to watch, and that's a poor supposition. It's not that the plot of Man of Tai Chi is worse than in many other martial films (nor that it can be easily distinguished from all of them). But it feels somehow more irritating to deal with because of how restless it is.

This still leaves the good stuff, mind you, and the good stuff is very good: the action, Reeves's sneering meanness, the cheerful aesthetic, which feels bright and lively in the darkest or greyest scenes. Man of Tai Chi is a delightful genre throwback; the biggest problem is that it doubles-down on the genre's biggest shortcomings, rather than trying to find a way of refreshing them. Still and all, in the generally impoverished world of early-'10s action cinema, it's an absolute gem, however tarnished.