There are two aspects to this movie, and I’ll try to separate them for this conversation as much as I can. At the basic level, it is a film to be considered on its merits. In addition, it is the first film Keanu Reeves (My Own Private Idaho) has directed, which is what brought it to so many people’s attention.
So, to be fair, I’ll discuss the movie on its own merits first. Cause, let’s face it, if that didn’t work, who cares that Reeves was involved?
The film moves well and captures the two main cultures and environments of Beijing and Hong Kong. You won’t be bored, especially if you like martial arts films out of these areas. And you will likely recognize some of the faces, though the most prominent, Tiger Hu Chen, has been primarily a stunt man prior to this outing. Tiger does a good job of coming into the spotlight. The story is a little thin and obvious, though there is a subtle aspect I’ll get to. But the main focus, of course, is the fighting. The fights are entertaining and varied, but here is where I have to veer into Reeves as a director.
The fight scenes are impressive but, like a lot of the film, not always filmed the best way for my eyes, though the cinematography was generally good from veteran Davis. Another part of Reeves learning-curve was the editing, which was distractingly fragmented at times even during conversational scenes. It spoke to weak storyboarding or planning causing a need to jump back an forth in rapid perspectives to get reactions.
Despite some of these weaknesses, for the first time out behind the camera, Reeves manages to put together a fairly entertaining film that rides the line between China, Hong Kong, and American styles. The denouement (just to bring in a bit of old Europe) and underlying mystery, such as it is, are a little disappointing. However, as I mentioned above, the lead-up and the idea behind the overall plot are a little more subtle. Not to oversell it, but it ends up all more as metaphor than actual–highlighting, again, the Far Eastern influences. If writer, Cooney, had a little more experience, it may have been a little more satisfying, but this was his first feature film as a writer as well.
With better material and some additional opportunities to improve, Reeves has another career path opening before him. That he managed this while also co-starring in the story allows me to handicap it a little as well–it was a heck of a risk on his part, but it also ensured the film would get seen globally. If you’re not a martial arts fan, you’ll not find much here to care about. But if you enjoy any of the genre, be it fantasy like Tai Chi Hero or any of the Jackie Chan or Jet Li oeuvre, to name a couple, you will find enough here to enjoy.