Keanu: Bad as he wants to be
by Peter Travers
He dropped out of 'SPEED 2' to tour with his rock band. What the heck was he thinking?
From a spare room in her Vermont home, Sylvia McCann publishes Zero Distortion, a monthly newsletter devoted to all things bright and beautiful about Keanu Reeves. The actor, who longed for the clarity of "zero distortion" in his 1991 film Point Break ( he played an FBI agent who went undercover as a surfer), could sure use his No. 1 fan right now. Hollywood thinks Reeves is nuts. It's not the usual blather about his being an airhead or a druggie or a closeted gay. It's not even his eccentric lifestyle (he lives out of a suitcase) or rebel recklessness (his ice-hockey unjuries and motorcycle spills are legion). In Hollywood, the standard for judging insanity remains constant: You turn down a good deal, babe, and you are crackers.
Reeves is guilty of dropping out of Speed 2, the sequel to the 1994 Die Hard-on-a-bus winner that raised his price per picture to $7 million. And for what has he let Jason Patric take his place next to Sandra Bullock aboard a franchise as potentially profitable as the one Bruce Willis milks whenever his career goes dry? To tour Europe playing bass guitar with his band, Dogstar, a folk-rock trio that even Reeves admits has been booed. And how does Reeves follow up Chain Reaction, the high-priced action trhiller that opened in August - and quickly crashed? With September's Feeling Minnesota, a low-budget mess that casts him as a nomad named Jjaks (a birth-certificate typo that stuck). Can this actor be saved?
Sylvie McCann, phoning in for Zero Distortion, says the 32-year-old Reeves doesn't need saving. "Keanu sticks to what he believes in," she insists. "Nobody tells him what to do." Spoken like a true loyalist. But McCann has a point. Last year, Reeves turned down a role in Heat with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to play the lead in Hamlet for peanuts onstage in Canada. That took guts. Many critics found Reeves a melancholy pain, but he soldiered on.
Go to the record and you find that Reeves has always showed tenacity. As the goalie for his high-school hockey team in Canada, Reeves was known as "the Wall". Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a British mother and a Hawaiin-Chinese father from whom he has long been stranged (Samuel Reeves was sentenced to 10 years on a drug charge in 1994), Keanu was raised in Toronto by his mom after his parents split. After dropping out in his senior year, he took lessons at a community acting school and won a small role (as a goalie) in a 1986 Rob Lowe low point called Youngblood. Soon after, Reeves found work in L.A. and won praise as a disaffected teen in River's Edge and The Prince of Pennsylvania.
Then, one 1989 movie changed everything. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, with Reeves and Alex Winter as time-traveling rocker dudes, was a sweet-natured precursor to Dumb and Dumber and a smash. For Reeves, it was also an albatross. Audiences thought he was the vacant Ted. The release of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in 1991, cemented the connection.
Director Gus Van Sant rescued Keanu from Ted with My Own Private Idaho, in which Reeves and his pal River Phoenix played hustlers. The campfire scene, in which Phoenix confesses his love for Reeves, is wrenching proof that Reeves could locate the emotional core of a role. Only the script's awkward Shakespearean pretensions marred his performance.
Reeves, ever the Wall, got right back on the bronco that threw him. As the evil Don John in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, he cut a formidably regal figure even when the Bard's words failed to fall trippingly off his tongue. Before taking on Hamlet, he spent a month at a Shakespeare camp. His roles became more ambitious - Prince Siddhartha in Bernado Bertolucci's Little Buddha and a cybercourier in Johnny Mnemonic, directed by the artist Robert Longo. Both movies are failed experiments, but neither is the work of an actor crassly trying to cash in. Still, the message is clear: Reeves fans want him in Speed mode, hot-looking and heroic. They even made a hit of A Walk in the Clouds, a florid romance in which he merely poses prettily.
Reeves has just started shooting Taylor Hackford's Devil's Advocate, in which he plays a lawyer who learns his boss (Al Pacino) may be the Prince of Darkness. It sounds exactly like the way Reeves feels about working in Hollywood. He has yet to give a fully realized performance in a movie that he took to stretch his talent. But there is a glint in his eye when he gets close, as in Idaho, that suggests he'd rather be in over his head than under a speeding bus. Maybe he is nuts, but Reeves will keep up the fight. Bet on it. Zero distortion.