Tearing to the Top
by Shelby Lee Pierce
What signifies speed? The Blur. Something moving faster than the mind's ability to register it. The movie Speed, written by Torontonian Graham Yost, son of Elwy, and premiering this month on TMN, is a blur in the good sense of the word, a non-stop sequence of knuckle-clenching, nail-biting scenes. If you blink you'll miss something important.
You've got a bus set to explode if it slows to under 50 mph and a series of "OmiGod-No!" events the likes of which haven't been seen since Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Indeed, the no-fat cut-to-the-chase style had a New Yorker magazine critic waxing: "No characterization, no moral point of view, minimal plot, hands down the film of the year."
Such raves also lit the fuse under Keanu Reeves' marquee value and faster than you can say "hormone surge" he entered the black and blue ring of adult action stars, sitting tricep by bicep with Arnold, Jean-Claude, Sly and Bruce Willis. As with most licenses to print dough, there is talk of a sequel. Maybe Speed Faster?
Reeves is a most unlikely candidate for macho studhood. After all, his most renowned roles have been air heads. But by running a finger down his filmography one sees that he has always had a dramatic agenda. And a game plan that has defied typecasting.
Everyone remembers him as Ted in the underrated Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure where something - maybe life in San Dimas - had skimmed off a few million gray cells.
Most accounts have the 30-year-old pegged as a "most excellent dude" though what comes across in his interviews is a painful inarticulateness that until now has kept him from being taken seriously as an adult lead.
Reeves came by his exotic name (Hawaiian for cool breeze over the mountains) and looks from his English mother and Chinese-Hawaiian father. He was raised in Australia, New York and Canada. He attended Toronto's High School for the Performing Arts, worked with the Second City troupe and made his motion picture debut in the obscure The Prodigal Son in 1984. The Dennis Hopper vehicle River's Edge ('87) got Reeves noticed as a talented teen and, in Dangerous Liaisons ('88), he played the juvenile lead.
Bill and Ted hit in '89 as did Steve Martin's Parenthood. He followed it up with Point Break ('91), My Own Private Idaho, with longtime buddy River Phoenix, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Little Buddha and, after a stint at the gym, he emerged as macho Jack Traven in Speed.
"I'm not adverse to working in the genre again; it was good clean fun," he has said. "But my ambition is variety."
Off-camera, Reeves seems decidedly bizarre. Interviews are rife with tales of him leaping from his chair to jump in place, whooping like a howler monkey to align his energy. He also worries studio execs by regularly crashing his 1972 Norton 850 Commando motorcycle.
Yet while he seems disarmingly hippie-dippie, he has a knack for getting his own way. He felt the original Speed script was too glib so he had it rewritten to make his character more earnest. And when he felt it would be a cop-out to have a stunt man do the suicidal leap from a careening car onto the mined bus, he made the jump - without telling the director.
His career path seems similarly risky. On the success of Speed he went directly to Winnipeg to play the lead in Hamlet to predictably mixed reviews. Of the experience, Reeves said it was "physically thrilling. It goes to my brain and into my heart."
Next up for Reeves will be the release of Johnny Mnemonic based on a short story from William Gibson. Co-Starring with Ice-T, Reeves plays a courier who has information vital to organized crime implanted in his head.
The year promises to be a busy one for Reeves, with several film projects lined up, including a $7 million paycheque for Dead Drop with The Fugitive director Andrew Davis.
It has been a long slow transition for Reeves to shed the trappings of adolescence but with Speed he has succeeded in doing just that as he climbed to the top of the Hollywood mountain. The little girls who loved him in 16 magazine are now competing with more mature women who have fallen under the spell of his buffed bod and exotic looks. Guys like him because he seems uncomplicated - what you see is what you get. Besides it would be impossible for a guy not to love a movie in which a city bus vaults a missing 50-foot piece of turnpike.