KEANU, A MOST EXCELLENT ICON
by Lizzie Francke
Keanu Reeves, all sweat and sensitivity, is the ideal movie hero
A THINK piece about Keanu Reeves? Four cerebrally inclined women certainly thought about him a lot while writhing around through the loop-the-loop thrills of Speed. It was too breathtaking to do any note-taking but still there was a three-course symposium on him afterwards, with some ear-wagging fellow diners looking like they wanted to footnote an item or two. Keanu, Keanu has such an erudite and macho-like ring. The finer points of discussion - his bristle-short crop, his newly toned muscles, and why oh why didn't the singular plot contrive for him to take his Stanley Kowalski-style tight T-shirt off - might not have merited doctorate status. But there was no doubt in our minds that Keanu Reeves is a thinking woman's - and man's - piece. This is the actor, after all, who has just had a study course devoted to him (at the Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena, California).
But lust apart, there is something most conundrum-like about the long-lashed brown-eyed boy, born of an English mother and Hawaiian-Chinese father, whose name means "cool breeze over the mountains" and who pretends his head is full of air. He's risen to fame partly via the exploits of those most excellent valley dudes Bill and Ted, types who are rather quicker off the mark with their air-guitar riffs than their verbal ripostes. But the Van-Halen -obsessed, floppy-haired Ted aside, Reeves has clocked a gamut of roles that skewer any elementary understanding of his screen persona.
Playing the preppie who lorded it as a rent boy in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, or the young journalist in Jon Amiel's playful take on the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter, the actor seems to have been set from the beginning on securing some cultural credibility for himself (he is even planning to appear on stage next year as Hamlet). Indeed, there is a strong literary streak in his filmography with Dangerous Liaisons, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing separating him from the rest of the brat-packers.
Meanwhile the critics chorus that he can't act, but that hasn't stopped such directors as Van Sant, Stephen Frears and Francis Coppola from queuing up to cast him.
As a phenomenon, Reeves has finally come into his own this year with two films that exemplify his contradictory nature. First he adorned flowing robes to play Siddhartha, the contemplative ascetic hero of Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Then a quick change to become the flak-jacketed cop Jack Traven who troops to the rescue in Speed. Meditation exercises were quickly replaced by work-out routines. His new status, in Hollywood studio terms, as an action hero, might for some seem as unlikely as the $ 170 million-and-counting box-office success of a film about a bus wired with a bomb that has to keep on the move at no less than 50 miles per hour. But Reeves pulls all the stunts - and quips - however, with a grace that surpasses that of all the eighties action men: Sly, Arnie, Jean-Claude etc.
Reeves and Speed, with its low body-count but high adrenalin-rush value, swerve the action movie in a new direction. For the actor has the pecs but he also has a cat-like dynamism to him. With his exquisite bone structure, he is also the first action hero to be truly a thing of beauty. Reeves is exotic and almost feminine, and as such he is an appealingly ambiguous figure in action-man apparel.
Those who followed him as Johnny Utah, the wet-behind-the-ears rookie FBI agent in Kathryn Bigelow's surf-stravaganza Point Break, knew what was coming. Self-dubbed by the director as a "wet western", Bigelow's film self-consciously explored the homo-erotic charge of the buddy action film genre, as Utah goes under cover to keep tabs on a surfing guru, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a prime suspect in a series of bank raids. As Tyler, the tomboyish woman who comes between them, retorts, "There's too much testosterone around here." But in Point Break it comes in an orgasmic hail of splash and spume, not the usual blood and bullets. Like Speed, it was exhilarating.
Certainly Reeves's persona redefines our ideas of masculinity, his physical presence a beguiling mix of sweat and sensitivity that makes him an appealing icon for both women and gay men. Arnie might be trying out the new-man act, but Keanu doesn't need to try. He skipped that one and moved to something a little beyond. As his name now zooms into the top league, and he can now command the kind of control that only such stellar success brings, one wonders where he may go in the future. The success of Speed has already prompted Fox studios swiftly to green-light him in the Mexican director Alfonso Arau's (he of the wonderfully melodramatic Like Water For Chocolate) first film for Hollywood, Walk In The Clouds. This cool breeze over mountain could bring some refreshing changes to bear on the Hollywood climate.
Speed opens on September 30