Keanu Reeves' Excellent Adventure
by Ian Fryer
Keanu Reeves' transition from juve lead to real live movie star heartthrob has been dizzyingly quick. He was born in 1964 to an English mother and a Hawaiian-Chinese father (hence the cute eyes) and was raised until his teens in Beirut. He took up acting at the age of sixteen, and got his first screen experience four years later. This was a bit part in Act of Vengeance, a true life story made for cable television starring Charles Bronson, directed by Britain's John (Long Good Friday) MacKenzie.
Reeves began to pick up a lot of work in t.v. movies after this, with his first good part coming in Under the Influence, where he played the son of alcoholic Andy Griffith, the first of the "crazy mixed up kid" roles he would specialise in for the next few years. Brotherhood of Justice brought him the role of a somewhat better balanced kid, one of a group of high achievers who decide to form a vigilante squad to clean up their school. This pilot for a prospective series brought Reeves his first top billing in a production, which also gave an early part to Kiefer Sutherland.
That same year, 1986, also brought his first small role in a film for theatrical release, Youngblood, the dullsville story of a Canadian ice hockey team starring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. I'll also skate over Reeves' appearance in a t.v. remake of the Laurel and Hardy classic Babes in Toyland, which is available on video for the really dedicated Keanu completest.
The big time began to beckon with a good role in the excellent, disturbing River's Edge. This is the true story of a youth who murders a girl, showing no remorse afterwards, and his friends (Reeves included) who have no idea how to react to this event, even helping the culprit cover up his crime. The performances are surprisingly solid by the young cast, but the standout parts go to Crispin Glover (George McFly in Back to the Future) and the not-so-young Dennis Hopper.
The big break came in the unexpected form of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a fluke success which lay on the distributor's shelf for a while before even being released. Unlike a million other dumb teen comedies, this dumb teen comedy hit its intended audience smack on the nose by presenting a pair of awesomely thick heavy metal-loving teenagers who speak in a strange Californian valley-speak. They are about to flunk history 'most heinously', which means that their cringe-making rock band, the Wyld Stallyns, will have to split. To prevent this 'totally bogus' occurrence a bloke from the future a appears in a time travelling telephone box (sound familiar Dr. Who fans?). The pair then nip off to various historical events to grab famous figures and bring them to 1988 California. Bill and Ted had the good fortune to tap into the mostly ignored audience of heavy metal-loving teenagers SM who were able to take the pair to their hearts as sort of warped role models. In truth, the actors, Keanu Reeves as Ted Logan and Alex Winter as Bill Preston, and the basic idea are better than the script, which has surprisingly few laughs for a hit comedy.
Permanent Record starts with Reeves still doing his Ted Logan schtick as a goofy high school student whose disordered, underachieving existence is thrown into turmoil when his best friend (Alan Boyce) throws himself off a cliff in front of his eyes. The film only descends into sentimentality as the students fight to perform a tribute to their deceased friend at the upcoming school concert. Reeves gave his best performance to date when things got serious and the ultimate failure of Permanent Record certainly isn't down to him.
The Prince of Pennsylvania is blessed with a great title, if nothing else. The plot sees the various effects overbearing father Fred (Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous) Ward has on his family. Son Reeves, an inventor of sorts, hits upon a plan to kidnap dad in order to split the ransom money with mum Bonnie (Die Hard) Bedelia. The film suffers from falling between two genres, small town drama and screwball comedy, but the performances just about pull it through.
Dangerous Liaisons was definitely the biggest budget film Reeves had starred to date, and although his role isn't large it is important. His character, Chevalier Danceny, is a mere pawn in the plots and schemes of Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Mertevil (Glenn Close) and gets to fight a duel in the snow with Valmont in the film's climax. Curious this is Reeves' least interesting performance to date, seemingly swamped between experienced stage and screen performers Malkovich and Close.
After a quick detour back into the realm of dumb high school comedy in the obscure The Night Before, Reeves starred in Parenthood, ostensibly a Steve Martin film, but in reality an ensemble piece - about, hey! guess what? - parenthood. With a strong cast: Diane Wiest, Rick Moranis, Jason Robarts, and funny script by Lowell Ganz and Baballo Mandell (if British writers had names like that they might be funnier) no-one is allowed to dominate and Reeves' character, teenage bridegroom Todd, is allowed to show a little depth beneath the usual goofball teenager exterior.
Another smallish role in an all-star production was Reeves' double act with William Hurt in I Love You To Death. This was the true story of a woman who attempted to murder her philandering husband seven times before they were eventually reconciled. Reeves and Hurt play Marlon and Harlon, dope fiend cousins who are hired by River Phoenix to shoot Kevin Klein. Reeves, apparently no stranger in the past to the world of hallucinogenic, is convincingly whacked out, but the whole film is rather a disappointment, especially when the excellent Klein is offscreen.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was (just barely) released nearly two years after it was made. This comedy was set in a New Orleans radio station in 1951 and saw Reeves as a young writer on a soap opera. Even the presence of the great Peter Falk couldn't save the film from obscurity under either this title (the title of the source novel) or its original title, Tune in Tomorrow.
Point Break was Reeves' fist attempt to break into the action film market. He's pretty good as intense young hot shot FBI agent Johnny Utah, out to get surfing Buddhist bank robber Patrick Swayze. Although Swayze is top billed, there is no attempt made to hide the fact that this is Reeves' film all the way. This represents something of a breakthrough into the general audience for almost the first time he gets to character who is playing with a full deck, as it were.
After this it was a return to Ted-dom with Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, a bigger and better sequel to the previous Bill and Ted. This time around Bill and Ted are killed and replaced by evil robots whilst the real pair play Monopoly for their souls with the grim reaper. With better jokes and effects than the first film, Bogus Journey even brought camp rockers Kiss back into the pop charts with a cover version of God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You.
A somewhat more challenging role was next up with Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Here Reeves plays one of a pair of male prostitutes alongside River Phoenix (who won a best actor award at the Venice film festival for his trouble) travelling across America and eventually to Italy in search of Phoenix's mother. A bigger contrast to Bill and Ted and Point Break cannot be imagined, but then that's probably the whole point.
The whole point in being Keanu Reeves as opposed to Jason Donovan is that you can take a few risks now and again, so for now he is able to balance roles in popular action films and comedies with more controversial work like My Own Private Idaho. He doesn't mind taking a back seat to more experienced actors, which bodes well for the future beyond teen stardom.
Films of Keanu Reeves
1984 Act of Vengeance
1986 Under the Influence (TVM)
Brotherhood of Justice (TVM)
Babes in Toyland (TVM)
1987 I Wish I Were Eighteen Again
1988 Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
The Prince of Pennsylvania
The Night Before
1990 I Love You To Death
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (a.k.a. Tune in Tomorrow)
1991 Point Break
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey
My Own Private Idaho