THE MOST EXCELLENT KEANU REEVES GETS SERIOUS
WHAT'S in a name?
If yours is Keanu Reeves, you've probably pondered that question once or twice. (Keanu, by the way, is a Hawaiian appellation.)
Names have had an unusual impact on the 26-year-old, Lebanon-born, Toronto-raised actor's movie career.
Of course, there's Ted, the San Dimas heavy-metal kid Reeves played in the comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and reprises in "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," which opens July 19.
Reeves is so natural as the good-hearted, air-guitar-playing airhead that it's become his movie signature. When he played a similar character in Ron Howard's "Parenthood" a few years back, the young man bore the Ted-like name Todd.
But Reeves also can be seen on screens this month as a guy far removed from the dumb-but-lovable California teen-ager. This guy's name is Johnny -- Johnny Utah.
"One of the things I dug was his name," Reeves said of his undercover FBI agent in the unusual action thriller "Point Break," opening Friday. "I'm playing Johnny Utah, you know? The energy from that name, like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana -- it's all in there. I know, myself, I had an expectation of this guy."
As do a lot of people in Kathryn Bigelow's philosophical thrill ride of a movie. After injuries spoiled his pro-track possibilities, college football star Utah joined the FBI.
His first big job out of the Los Angeles office is to track down a bank-robbing gang called the Ex-Presidents, whose members stage their bloodless, daylight heists wearing Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson masks.
Utah's partner, Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), is convinced the criminals are surfers. Utah starts hanging out at the beach, where he eventually works his way into a clique headed by a charismatic adrenaline junkie named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).
By the film's climax, the once-cocky Utah has betrayed everybody he has grown to care for and every simple belief he once had faith in.
"As soon as Utah enters this scene, everything goes wrong for everybody," Reeves said.
"He wants to win. The essence of football, especially for a quarterback like he was, is to win. In the beginning, Angelo goes, 'You wanna catch the bad guys and be a big hero?' and he answers, 'Definitely.' He has no concept of what that means except from a football, 'win' mentality.
"But all of that gets torn apart. He gets confronted with moral questions. To get to Bodhi, he manipulates a girl (another surfer, played by Lori Petty) in an evil way. But it's from innocence, almost. His innocence about the game of winning."
Reeves learned to surf for the role. "It wasn't easy," he said. "I started out a month and a half before filming, went on a surfing trip to Kauai with a friend, and I got slapped! I mean, the first time I went into the water, the board just smacked me in the head. But eventually, I could do it. I could stand up, depending on the wave."
Reeves also jumped out of airplanes, although not for any of the film's exhilarating sky-diving shots.
"I jumped at 12,500 feet, pulled my own cord," Reeves said proudly. "But I didn't do it for the film because of money. The money aspect of the film was very concerned about twisted ankles and death. We all jumped, but we didn't tell each other."
Reeves and the Ex-Presidents filmed their airborne scenes on a complex system of cranes and platforms. After principal photography was completed, Swayze went up with stunt divers and camera crews to shoot footage of himself free-falling.
Reeves would have joined him, but a day after "Point Break" filming wrapped, he had to go to Oregon to begin work on his next movie. Due to be released in October, "My Own Private Idaho" is the new film by the acclaimed director of "Drugstore Cowboy," Gus van Sant Jr.
In it, Reeves plays a teen-age street hustler whose father, the mayor of Portland, leaves him a small fortune. The character's name, Scott Favor, jumps out as a description of his station in life.
"That is an exceptional film," Reeves said. "Because of the characters, because of the way it's written, and because of Gus van Sant, the way he shot it. He's an artist, a painter who makes films. And as a man, his integrity is passionate."
Unlike, perhaps, Johnny Utah, Reeves has had an inner compass for professional integrity in fine operating order since his highly praised film debut, as the conscience-stricken member of a gang of disaffected youths in the 1986 crime drama "River's Edge."
The ethical questions that film brought up were echoed by other thoughtful performances in "Permanent Record" and "The Prince of Pennsylvania."
"Hopefully, the films that I did had something to say," he said of the troubled teen-ager movies. "When I do a gig, I try to walk the walk and talk the talk."
More recently, Reeves has been branching out into a wider variety of roles and films. He played the young swain Danceny in "Dangerous Liaisons"; a '50s radio writer infatuated with his sexy, widowed aunt in "Tune in Tomorrow"; and, alongside William Hurt, half of a stoned-out, inept assassin team (they were called Harlan and Marlon) in Lawrence Kasdan's "I Love You to Death."
Still, despite his demonstrated versatility, Reeves remains Ted in most moviegoers' minds. It bugs him, but about as much as anything else seems to -- not much.
"As an actor, typecasting is death -- unless you want to support the ranch that you own and the small plane that you want to buy. Then, I guess it works because people are buying the gig. But myself, I'd like to do a lot of different things. That's the challenge, the test, the scary part and, also, the interesting aspect of acting.
"I had a lot of fun doing Ted again," Reeves said of the sequel, in which he and co-star Alex Winter visit, among other dimensions, hell. "He's always going to be with me, and I'm always going to be in him. I learned a lot from Ted. That script and that part taught me a lot of things, and I took them for myself and in my life.
"There is such joy to his outlook. He is a very sincere young man, he's a good guy, and he just wants to laugh and play rock 'n' roll, you know? It's not that complicated, and it's a reaction to his environment.
"But I don't want to play Ted until I'm 45. Maybe I'll get to play the child in the man, a part of that. But I've kind of done that. I hope I get the opportunity to act in other pieces. I've got a lot of things to say."
And a lot more names to try on.