Film Review - Special issue #11 (UK), Summer 1995
Much Ado About Keanu Reeves
As Speed king Keanu Reeves settles into Hollywood A-list, Anwar Brett examines his brilliant career so far....
Having single-handedly made bus travel exciting again in Speed, Keanu Reeves has matured in the last few years from geeky kid to teen heart-throb and bonafide action star. Forthcoming movies give him a chance to display both those qualities in equal degrees, first portraying the title role in the film version of William Gibson's cult cyberpunk novel Johnny Mnemonic. As a bio-enhanced, silicone chip-implanted courier carrying vital data in his memory bank he faces danger on all sides, in the film that is already being touted as the Blade Runner for the 1990s.
Then he gets a chance to show a more tender side, in Alfonso Arau's A Walk in the Clouds, a slow burning, passionate film which tells of an American GI who falls for the beautiful daughter of a vineyard owner in California shortly after the War. Their sensuous attraction occurs in spite of his own empty marriage and her disapproving family. Both roles mark the return of Keanu Reeves to the very top of his profession.
Born 30 years ago in Beirut, the son of a Hawaiian-Chinese father and an English mother, the young Keanu - his name means cool breeze over the mountains - relocated from these unlikely beginnings to Canada via Australia and New York. At the age of sixteen he had already made his professional debut in a Canadian sitcom, but he began his acting studies in earnest at Toronto's High School for the Performing Arts.
But not earnestly enough as it turned out for he was kicked out after a year for unruly behaviour. Undeterred Keanu went into summers stock in Pennsylvania, and bounced back with roles in a variety of TV movies, before making his feature film début in the ice hockey drama Youngblood. His major breakthrough came in 1987 with the bleak and chilling River's Edge, playing the character of Matt who had difficulty in coming to terms with the senseless murder of a friend, an event that defines the whole shocking story.
For his efforts Keanu earned good notices and a similarly emotionally charged role in the little seen Permanent Record. From sullen outsider to High School nerd, The Night Before was an ignominious follow up to that early success. He had an important role in Dangerous Liaisons, and performed with vigour and some charm in the first of a surprising number of classical costume dramas.
At around the same time he was appearing in comedies like The Prince of Pennsylvania and Parenthood, but the early part of his career was most closely identified with the role of Theodore Logan - 'Ted' to Alex Winter's Bill - in both an Excellent Adventure and a Bogus Journey.
The most successful evocation of Valley kid mentality yet to hit the big screen, Reeves and Winter introduced non-American audiences to a new language of the most bodacious, non-heinous kind. It also created the expression "full on robot chubby" and is to be applauded for that if nothing else. But in portraying this more extreme example of the kind of empty headed teenager he had played while romancing Martha Plimpton in Parenthood, Keanu was also playing a dangerous game with typecasting, so indelible was the impression he made.
Perhaps for that reason above all the roles he selected thereafter seemed more rounded and fuller in character. Following an amusing cameo - playing an incompetent hit man - in Lawrence Kasdan's patchy I Love You to Death, British director Jon Amiel cast him as the lead in his evocative and nostalgic fantasy Aunt Julia & the Scriptwriter.
Suddenly transformed from gangly youth into an impressive figure of manhood equipped with collar, tie and conservative '50s haircut, Keanu was totally convincing as the idealistic young journalist who falls in love with his 36-year-old aunt (Barbara Hershey), but finds his romance threatened by the disruptive influence of the eccentric and brilliant Pedro Carmichael (Peter Falk). Although the film was ultimately dismissed by critics Keanu won great acclaim, and was described in Variety as 'outstanding'.
1991 can be considered, in retrospect, a key year for the actor. He obviously felt enough at ease in his career to return to the role of Ted in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey - a most excellent decision as it was far funnier than the original film - but he also appeared in two other films which were to enhance his subsequent career.
Point Break, in which he played Johnny Utah an FBI agent memorably described as being "young, dumb and full of cum" was a macho thriller with a heady mix of inventive action and black humour that proved to be box office gold. When not falling under the spell of the charismatic Patrick Swayze, the leader of a team of Zen surfing bank robbers, he looked suitably muscular and brooding in the lead, apparently unruffled at a scene in which a naked woman kicks the living Zen out of him - can you imagine Stallone doing that scene?
The film also enabled Keanu to indulge his passion for wild and dangerous sport, learning how to surf and skydive especially for the role. Described by his Aunt Julia director Jon Amiel as a Speed freak, Keanu has borne the scars of his various motorcycle skids and crashes with a commendable lack of concern - "my body's a wreck, man," he admits.
Yet this was also the year of his greatest acting triumph, in Gus Van Sant's peculiar but absorbing modern-day spin on Shakespeare's Henry V, My Own Private Idaho. As a poor little rich boy, earning a few bucks as a male prostitute to spite his parents before returning to the bosom of his family, he was a compelling Prince Hal figure. Starring alongside River Phoenix, a young man forced into his sordid trade by a desperate search for love and out of a crippling need for money, the two young actors and a quite splendid script elevated an offbeat art house flick into a cult film into a surprise box office hit. It even played the multiplex circuit in Britain and has enjoyed a healthy life on video and in one-off screenings ever since.
As a result or these eclectic choices Keanu had arrived with style, suggesting a populist sensibility but with an eye for offbeat and cultish material. And most importantly - in Hollywood terms - he was a young, handsome and talented actor who appealed to men and women alike.
OUT OF DEPTH
In stark contrast to that success, the following years began to expose some chinks in his armour. As Jonathan Harker in Coppola's beautifully expressionist realization of Bram Stoker's Dracula his character was underwritten and he seemed out of his league. The English accent never rang true and the role left him floundering against the more exaggerated roles of his co-stars and some head turning special effects.
He appeared briefly in a cameo in Hideous Mutant Freaks, which Alex Winter wrote and directed, and followed that up with a Tuscan adventure in Kenneth Branagh's rendition of Much Ado About Nothing. Yet while he was given the meaty role of Don John, bastard brother of Don Pedro, whose treachery threatens the joyous wedding that the characters had gathered to celebrate, he suffered once again in illustrious company.
Keanu was reduced to posturing and mumbling his way through his role, and proved a weak link in the ensemble which Branagh had cast so imaginatively. At least it showed an ambition to stretch himself even if that ambition was, for the time being, beyond him. Subsequently he has played Hamlet on stage in Canada, a low key affair for so big a Hollywood star, and by all accounts he was quite excellent in that role - perhaps chastened by his experience and taught a few lessons along the way.
But you could have forgiven him for thinking that things were on a downward spiral during 1993, after a cameo in Gus Van Sant's disappointing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - shelved and re-cut before getting a UK release - and the major setback posed by the failure of Little Buddha at the box office.
Even though it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who had drawn critical acclaim, Oscars and financial success for the similarly unlikely Last Emperor, this project seemed even more incredible. Casting a teen heart throb like Reeves in the role of the Buddhist prophet was audacious, and was probably calculated to draw in audiences curious to see how he tackled so important a role, as well as his own young following that he had built up in his previous roles.
But if that was the thinking behind it, the reality was different. Telling the story of Prince Siddhartha concurrently with a modern search for the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk, the structure was all over the place while the film was overlong. Out of the wreckage, Keanu emerged with some credit however, offering a visually striking figure and delivering a surprisingly effective performance in a very difficult role.
HITTING TOP SPEED
So, if that was to be his biggest failure, the signs were already looking up. The following year saw the release of Speed, a sleeper hit for which no-one had any high expectations. After all, it marked the directorial début of respected Dutch cinematographer Jan De Bont, Keanu was just another handsome leading actor whose star seemed to be waning, Sandra Bullock was unknown, and Dennis Hopper was cast in the kind of sneering bad guy role that he could play in his sleep.
Yet all the ingredients came together wonderfully, the film surprised critics, entertained audiences and delighted the studio that made it so much that they immediately began discussing a sequel. The film smashed through the $100 million barrier, proving a huge hit all over the world. Keanu was back.
For Dennis Hopper, stalwart bad guy and enthusiastic supporting player in scores of films since the mid '50s, the filming of Speed marked a welcome reunion with an actor he had seen come a long way since they had first worked together on River's Edge.
"He's a good guy. I respect him a lot. But," he smiled ominously, "I can't say I had any problems hitting him in our final fight scene. It was really rough, and they decided we should do it on top of a real train. There were ridge lines on top of the train, every four inches there was a three inch rise that was about an inch and a half thick.
"We had to be on our hands and knees, and even though we were wearing knee pads and elbow pads, by the second day I was so sore that I could barely crawl. I had bruises on every part of my body. Just holding up my arm and blocking the punch, over and over and over was agony. That was a tough one, hard on both of us but Keanu was wonderful."
Co-star Sandra Bullock, who shared a dangerous embrace with our hero during one of the film's more improbable stunts managed to pinpoint just one of the factors behind the films success.
"It was kind of insane," she recalled, "but Keanu did do a lot of his own stunts. That made it much more believable than seeing this bus hurtling down the street with a stuntman's body and Keanu's face inserted in close-ups. I loved what he did with that part though, the character had just as many faults as Attributes. And in the end I think he has redefined the superhero."
True enough, for Speed emerged as one of the hits of the year, and even featured on many critic's top ten lists - a real rarity for such a shameless action movie. The effect on the genre has yet to be calculated, but its effect on Keanu Reeves's career has been to re-invigorate it after a blip in what had otherwise been a steady rise to the top of the Hollywood tree. And, with a pair of impressively contrasting films scheduled for release within a week of each other, the Summer of 1995 looks like being Keanu season once again.