Cinema's 'cool breeze over the mountain'
by Anand Parthasarathy
Hollywood's quirky new icon, believes in trying anything - once: which rules out sequels. Anand Parthasarathy takes a look at the career of Keanu Reeves, whose two disparate new films are now on release in India.
His father was half Chinese - half Hawaiian. His mother was British. He was born in Lebanon and spent his student days in Canada. Keanu Charles Reeves had an upbringing which was a melange of clashing cultures. And the hippie sector of Toronto in the early 1980s, where he moved with his now-separated mother, had too many exciting things going for the 19 year old Keanu to stick with his books. He dropped out - and after a controversial part in a stage play, got his first small part in a locally shot film, "Young Blood,'' in 1986 (he is there, behind the goalkeeper's mask in this tale about ice hockey).
With his battered second hand car, he headed across the U.S. border - for Hollywood. "Keanu'' means "cool breeze across the mountain'' in Hawaiian. And the breeze which wafted over Southern California ended up within a decade as an exciting tornado of unpredictable talent. This month, two of Keanu Reeves' 1996 films are both on release in India - one, "Chain Reaction'', a non-stop action yarn; the other, "A Walk in the Clouds'', an unabashedly old fashioned and syrupy romance.
Which is the real Keanu? He is not saying - and his fans are hotly debating the issue all over the Internet. There is now a special site on the World Wide Web, of Internet, dubbed "Keanunet'', containing, every minor detail of his life story, painstakingly compiled by his admirers; a complete filmography; a collection of stills from his films - and a bulletin board space where admirers of Reeves the actor, dissect his screen performances. When he refused a $ 11 million offer to reprise the role of the undercover Los Angeles cop, in the soon-to-come sequel to that runaway 1994 action film, "Speed'', his fans were flabbergasted - and didn't hesitate to castigate him in angry E Mail. But Reeves reportedly found little challenge in rehashing his role, in what he thought was a weak new plot and stuck to his decision.
Instead, in a display of the sort of quirky unpredictability in artistic matters, that is now Keanu Reeves hallmark, he went off on a world tour with "Dogstar'', the funk-rock band where he plays the bass guitar.
Both his 1996 films, are now playing in India. The latest, "Chain Reaction'' is another dose of roller-coaster action where Reeves plays a young technician, Eddie Kasalavich, in a hush-hush Chicago research lab, where they've just done a "Ramar Pillai'' - discovered a new fuel source, extracting hydrogen from water. But sinister forces are at work: Eddie comes back to the lab later, only to see it being blown up - and the FBI think he is responsible. Till he finds out who is trying to frame him, Eddie has to remain on the run. If the plot so far sounds suspiciously similar to that of the Harrison Ford film "The Fugitive'' - there are reasons: the two films share the same director, Andrew Davis.
A female physicist, Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) joins Eddie 'on the lam' and before the duo can identify the real conspirators (who may or may not include, the lab's mentor, the shadowy Paul Shannon played by Morgan Freeman), we are treated to some action set pieces - Reeves driving up a raised bridge, Reeves and Weisz slithering across a frozen pond in an ice boat...Things get so fast and furious that logic sometimes gets left behind. A confused fan posted his opinion on the Net that the film "has more nifty coincidences than an identical twins' convention.''
In sharp contrast to these vigorous goings-on, are the almost lyrical interludes in "A Walk in the Clouds,'' the other Keanu Reeves film now being screened in India. Directed by Mexican Alfonso Arau, the film set in the months immediately after World War II, features Reeves as a returning U.S. soldier, Paul Sutton, who finds his girl friend has no use for him. On the rebound he agrees to help a mysterious Mexican woman Victoria Aragon (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), who dreads going back to her Californian grape farm home, and telling her straitlaced family that she is pregnant. Sutton volunteers to pose briefly as her husband - but once back in the wine producing Napa Valley, he (surprise, surprise!) really falls in love and soon charms one and all including Victoria's grandfather (Anthony Quinn).
It is as old fashioned and sacharine-sweet as they come - aided by a stringy Maurice Jarre score, and some classically romantic images.
Another Keanu Reeves film, about to release here, is the 1995 "sci-fi'' thriller "Johnny Mnemonic,'' set in 2021, where Reeves in the title role, plays a futuristic "info-courier,'' shuttling information across the world, by storing it in a microchip embedded in his head. An accidental memory overload, leaves Johnny desperately trying to unload his memory into some convenient computer before the baddies get him. And it just so happens, that his memory is chockful of the vital cure for some global epidemic. "Cyber claptrap'' went the terse comment of a critic. But Reeves' own performance excites few adverse comments because for thousands of his admirers, he has attained cult status - after over 25 screen appearences in ten years.
After his debut film, "Young Blood,'' Reeves appeared in the disturbing 1986 film "River's Edge'' - where he is one of a group of teenagers,who discover that one of them has killed his girlfriend. In most of these 1980s films, Reeves, had a small, secondary role, but occasionally made an impression on viewers - like his portrayal of Chevalier Danceny in the 1988 costume drama "Dangerous Liaisons,'' starring Glen Close and John Malkovich.
His first major role came with the dawn of the 1990s. In "Point Break,'' he plays an FBI Agent, who joins the Californian "sun, sand and surf'' crowd to investigate a series of bank robberies. Sucked into this hedonistic life style, he finally tracks his quarry (Patrick Swayze) but only after a lot of violent action. Francis Ford Coppola, cast Reeves, in the opulent remake of "Bram Stoker's Dracula'' (1992) and a year later, British Shakespearean actor-director Kenneth Branagh, made Keanu Reeves the surprise choice for the part of Don Juan in his U.S. screen version of "Much Ado About Nothing.'' 1993 also saw Reeves pop up in another unlikely vehicle - as the prince Siddartha, who became Gautama in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha.''
But for many cinemagoers in India, it was the hair-raising action in the 1994 film "Speed'' which reflected the Keanu Reeves they wanted to see. Guiding a runaway bus, with Sandra Bullock at the controls, tracking a ruthless terrorist (Dennis Hopper) who holds Los Angeles to ransom, down a runaway lift and a runaway train.... it was all adrenaline-pumping stuff. Reeves followed this with a film not yet seen in India: "Feeling Minnesota'' was a psychological romance,where he plays a man who falls for his sister-in-law and has to battle it out with his brother.
And since November 1996, he has been working on his latest film, "The Devil's Advocate,'' not yet released in the U.S. Directed by Taylor Hackford, the film has Reeves playing a young lawyer, who joins a New York legal firm, headed by the sinister Al Pacino. This is likely to turn out as another suspense yarn - without too much distracting action.
Will the myriad admirers of Keanu Reeves accept him in yet another chameleon change of persona? It remains to be seen. But few doubt that the actor, yet only 33 years of age, still has some artistic surprises that he may spring on cinema lovers.
It is a measure of the sheer academic interest that he generates, that the Pasadena Arts Centre in the U.S., now offers a formal course, entitled "The Films of Keanu Reeves.'' It is a course that has to be necessarily open ended. Because Keanu Reeves hasn't yet finished his act.