Film hero casual about action roles
For Keanu Reeves, the excitement still is in the drama
by Bob Strauss
Keanu Reeves' big action film "Chain Reaction" opened Friday, and the actor couldn't have been more ... well, casual about it.
"When I was making 'Chain Reaction,' I didn't think it was going to be a big action picture,' said Reeves, who was best-known as a lovable lunkhead in the "Bill & Ted" comedies before "Speed" made him a high-grossing hero two years ago. "I signed on early just on the basis of the idea and the director" (Andrew Davis, of "The Fugitive" fame).
"But it kind of went in a direction I was not expecting. I thought it was going to be dram-action; but I think some of the drama stayed in there."
Coming on the heels of his recent refusal to appear in "Speed II," Reeves' lukewarm assessment of his new potential blockbuster - in which he plays a machinist, Eddie Kasalivich, who's framed and on the run from a huge, powerful conspiracy - does seem to indicate a disdain for the genre that saved him from stoner-dude stereotyping.
Not entirely the case, the 31-year-old actor said.
"I really like action movies when they're good," said Reeves. "'Chain Reaction' has a chase movie formula, but all the actors' and the director's efforts were in trying to make a realistic picture. It was just a real collaboration to figure out which kind of action picture this is going to be. It's formulaic in its way, but I think the subject matter is certainly worthwhile.'
In "Chain Reaction," a University of Chicago research team successfully extracts hydrogen energy from water, making for a clean and abundant new power source. But bad guys blow up the device and kill the lead scientist. Chased by both the authorities and the covert perpetrators, Eddie and surviving scientist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) must figure out what's really going on while saving themselves and, quite possibly, the future of the world.
Regardless of the movie's subject, Reeves judges his hero roles carefully.
"My whole thing is, am I here for the action sequence or is the action sequence here for me?" he explained. "I believe that all action should be born out of drama. Of course, I like spectacle as well, but I'm finding some of the spectacle being created devoid of any kind of realism. It's just so crass; most action pictures now still want to hook you, but they go so far with this cartoonishness, I just want to throttle someone."
Reeves denied reports that he declined the lucrative "Speed" sequel so he could tour with his rock group, Dogstar. "Not at all," he said of the "Speed II" decision. "It had nothing to do with playing in a band; I don't know where that started. It was my own choice.
"I'll just say it was because I didn't want to repeat, didn't want to do the same thing again. It was easy from my own point of view, just because of the nature of the picture. But it was very hard career-wise, from the business aspect," Reeves admitted. He was reportedly offered $11 million for the sequel.
"It was a lot of money, and the first film brought me a lot of attention and a lot of opportunities to act in different films. But now I'm just throwing caution to the wind. We'll see what happens."
So far, he doesn't appear to have anything to worry about. Reeves reportedly is getting paid $10 million for "Devil's Advocate," a nonaction thriller in which he plays a lawyer dealing with you-know-who, that shoots in the fall.
Carrying a helmet around to interviews, Reeves seems more concerned about traffic safety after his recent motorcycle accident than about where his next job is coming from.
But then, he has been involved with interesting projects and impressive filmmakers ever since he left Toronto for Hollywood. A longtime fixture on the independent film scene, he has worked for such notable directors as Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons"), Ron Howard ("Parenthood"), Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho"), Francis Ford Coppola ("Bram Stoker's Dracula"), Bernardo Bertolucci ("Little Buddha"), Alfonso Arau ("A Walk in the Clouds") and Kenneth Branagh ("Much Ado About Nothing").
Reeves will next be seen in "Feeling Minnesota," a low-key, lowlife romance co-starring "The Mask's" Cameron Diaz. The film, by first-time writer-director Steven Baigelman, stars Reeves as the unusually named Jjaks, an ex-con whose competition with his brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) for the love of his sister-in-law becomes deadly. Reeves is noticeably more excited about the littler movie, which opens in September.
"Working with a studio is great," Reeves acknowledged. "You get such support, the scope is grander. But my perspective of Hollywood is that it's about entertainment. It's not, generally, concerned specifically with the emotions of relationships.
"'Feeling Minnesota' is much more sophisticated, at least emotionally and psychologically, than 'Chain Reaction,' though I think 'Chain Reaction' has symbols that are quite complex. 'Feeling Minnesota' is about people needing love, and also just seeing the ways people are trapped by their own physical past.'
If this sounds somewhat pretentious coming from an actor who often seems, well, casual about his craft on screen, it should be noted that Reeves gives one of his more compelling performances in "Feeling Minnesota."
Reeves is aware of his image.
"I'm the critics' whipping boy," Reeves admitted. "I think it was because I went from [his acclaimed American debut film] 'River's Edge' to 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure,' and that threw some people. Then I kind of stunk in 'Dracula,' and that was a drag. I guess, after that, they didn't know what to make of me.'
But Reeves, the son of a British mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father (his Hawaiian first name means "cool breeze over the mountains"), won't cop to charges that he's a blankly pretty movie face. At least, not most of the time.
"Alex Winter [who played Bill to Reeves' Ted] says that he sometimes sees in my performances, when there's a line or a moment that is artificial, that I become third person," Reeves revealed. "A certain detachment comes in, and people take that for bad acting."
Indeed, Reeves can claim serious Shakespearean status. His first acting job was in a Massachusetts production of "The Tempest," and he recently headlined a Canadian "Hamlet" run.
Reeves' other major nonmovie activity, of course, is playing bass for Dogstar, whose first album comes out at the end of this month. When asked if he'll continue touring with the band, though, Reeves shrugged noncommitally.
"It's good fun; 'Hamlet's' a little more tricky,' he cracked about touring. "I'd never give up acting for music. I have a lot of fun acting, too, and acting's what I've always wanted to do."