No slacking off
by Stephen Schaefer
With the opening of 'Speed,' Keanu Reeves stands to shed his 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure' slacker image. As LAPD bomb-squad expert Jack Traven, Reeves must rescue a busload of passengers and outwit Dennis Hopper's psychopathic terrorist who has placed a bomb on the bus that will explode if the vehicle goes below 50 mph.
'Jack Traven is perhaps the first mainstream part I've played as an adult,' says Reeves. 'I don't want to repeat the roles I did when I was 17, it's not appropriate.
'I wanted him to be really a SWAT guy, a good, altruistic, aggressive, imaginative Special Weapons and Tactics officer and man. I was more interested in that than something that's been done.'
Reeves conferred with an LAPD consultant ('I really felt I had met a warrior'), had his shaggy hair shaved into a buzzcut and worked to bulk-up his arms and chest, the better to emphasize Traven's quiet intensity as he goes about his daily business of saving lives.
A fan of action movies, including 'Die Hard' and 'Evil Dead,' Reeves tries to duck a question about their appeal by saying, 'I think you'd have to ask the philosophers.' But then he says gamely, 'Death. Fantasy. The destructive impulse of society. Titillation, excitement. What is the enjoyment of tragedy - is that the suspension of pleasure? What is that Freudian thing? People like fire, impact.'
'(Reeves) was initially worried about the action stuff,' says Jan De Bont, the film's Dutch cinematographer-turned-director, 'so in the first week I had him do a stunt to give him confidence. He liked it so much, I couldn't stop him.'
Reeves' stunts include a harrowing jump at 40 mph from a -- speeding Jaguar into the bus, being lowered upside-down in a 100-foot elevator shaft and the tricky business of lying under the speeding bus on a platform as Traven inspects the bomb. What was he thinking of during that last harrowing bit of work?
'I just wanted to make it visceral,' he says. 'I tried to enact his struggle as much as I could.'
The Beirut-born, Toronto-raised Reeves, 29, who is of Hawaiian ancestry, has had a most eclectic career as he's steadily achieved the status of bankable leading man in the past decade. He has tackled everything from Shakespeare for Kenneth Branagh ('Much Ado About Nothing') and historical costumers ('Dracula,' 'Dangerous Liaisons') to teen tragedy ('River's Edge,' 'Permanent Record') and teen hustling ('My Own Private Idaho') as well as more predictable comedies ('I Love You to Death,' 'Parenthood') and action exercises ('Point Break'). But even as 'Speed' opens, a much thinner, more enigmatic Reeves is on display as the androgynous Prince Siddartha in 'Little Buddha.'
Through this heady mix of movies, Reeves has maintained a separateness from any kind of media build-up. If he's avoided the star-making machinery and kept a sense of privacy, it may be due to what 'Speed' co-star Sandra Bullock and De Bont both see as his 'shy' and 'reserved' nature.
There is also a bit of a rebel here, hinted at in his passion for motorcycles and even his dress. Suited, wearing suspenders, no tie with a white shirt, the neatnik image is contradicted with scuffed shoes so ragged from age and use it's impossible to say whether they had once been black or brown or even blue suede.
Will becoming Hollywood's Boy of Summer affect his ability to do the low-budget movies he's supported?
'Hopefully,' he answers diplomatically, 'it will bring opportunity.'