Film Review (UK), July 1999
Ever had the feeling that there's more to this world than meets the eye? Keanu Reeves takes a walk on a wilder side of reality in the simply awesome The Matrix
by Roald Rynning
After Speed turned Reeves into a Hollywood box-office sensation, the heartthrob of teen fares like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and art-house hits like River's Edge and My Own Private Idaho had Hollywood at his feet.
Yet, instead of picking big-budget films, Keanu seemed to have a blatant career death wish. Instead of doing Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, he played Hamlet onstage in an 800-seat Canadian theatre. In favour of reprising his role in Speed 2 for $11 million, he decided to tour with his rock band Dogstar.
When he finally returned to films, he chose doomed independent failures like Johnny Mnemonic, Feeling Minnesota and The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Since 1994's Speed, Keanu has only made just one moderate hit, Devil's Advocate with Al Pacino.
"Turning down Speed 2 was hard, career-wise and money-wise, but I'm glad I toured with the band instead," explains Keanu, who at one point dropped out of Hollywood completely and was rumoured to have retired from acting. "I had no intention of giving up acting. It is my life's work. But like many actors, I get involved in other activities because I need a life and because you never know where your next gig is coming from."
The 34-year-old star did occasionally worry that Hollywood might think he had disappeared.
"Every once in a while I'd worry for a bit," he laughs, "Then I go have a beer."
In fact, Keanu didn't exactly drop out of Hollywood. He spent 14 months of his life devoted to the preparation and making of the flashing science fiction thriller The Matrix The $60 million production was shot in Australia where capable crews are cheaper. And what a comeback it is for him. An absolutely monster hit, The Matrix opened with a record-breaking $37 million weekend in America.
But the role of Thomas 'Neo' Anderson, a computer wizard who believes that humanity has become victimized by evil computers, was no picnic. It required Keanu to sign up for four months of hardcore physical training prior to filming. Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt apparently all turned down the role because of this.
"I was into doing Kung Fu for the movie," says Keanu. "I like the fake fighting. Like cowboys and Indians."
But the rigorous training aggravated an old neck injury and Keanu required surgery.
"As a result I had a neck brace on for a lot of the movie and the doctors didn't allow me to kick. It was frustrating because my brothers and sisters in training [co-stars Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving] were kicking, I had to keep punching because I couldn't kick because of the flexion in the neck."
He ended up black and blue all the same.
"You learn how to take the hits and pull back but you still get sore and tender," grins Keanu, who for one harrowing sequence was fighting for 14 days straight on an underground set. "It was physically exhausting and I got plenty of bruises and aches but, thankfully, I never broke anything."
With The Matrix, former comic-book writers-turned-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski are introducing the Asian cinematic technique of wire-fighting into an American action film. This entailed hooking the actors up to wires and manipulating them in much the same way a puppeteer does his marionettes. The wires are erased in the editing room with computers, and the result is that the cast runs up walls and flips through the air as bullets fly.
"You get on the wire and then there's a pulley, and some people on the other end, the Hong Kong team, pulling the wires," explains Keanu. "They're masters. It's such a simple thing, but it creates magic. It's really fun."
Keanu gets animated when he talks about doing the wire cable stunts.
"For the first while it's a bit scary, but during the initial training we were in a room with padded walls and floors to soften the impact. After four months hooked up on wires, I felt a little like Peter Pan."
But the obviously dangerous fight scenes, which will take audiences' breath away, should perhaps have been done by stuntmen and not the actors themselves.
"The brothers wanted to put the actors right into the action," he retorts, referring to directors Andy and Larry Wachowski. "They wanted to film it in a sort of a Hong Kong-style where they didn't have to cut away and use edits.
Despite the breathtaking action, The Matrix has a script that includes plenty of philosophical discussion.
"Through all the action we're telling a story and there are lessons to be learnt," tells Keanu. "The movie has a meaning and a positive message. It's a story of the fight for individuality and compassion and coming to terms with the world. It has got such heart and soul. My character is searching for himself and his relationship to the world. He is looking for answers. I was working on those questions at the time. I think it's a brilliant script."
You could be forgiven if you think Keanu Reeves perhaps isn't the best judge of a clever script. There have been plenty of awful films from him, disasters like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction.
But he is also a gutsy actor who seldom picks safe projects. As a result, his films are a varied and interesting bunch including half a dozen must-sees; independent pearls like River's Edge and My Own Private Idaho, Hollywood costume dramas like Dangerous Liaisons and Dracula, modern action capers like Speed and Devil's Advocate, and science fiction epics like The Matrix.
"Working with a studio is great; the scope is grander. But my feeling about Hollywood is that it is not generally concerned with specifics of emotions and relationships," reflects Keanu of his favouring independent films. "Most of the time I really enjoy working in studio pictures but I love doing independent movies and work with new, inventive directors as well."
Despite the passion for his craft, the critics haven't always been kind to him. They usually overlook his strong charisma and unusual innocence and brush off his acting as bland or uninteresting.
"I do know that I'm the critics' whipping boy," he says without any hint of feeling sorry for himself. "I think that when I went from River's Edge to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, I stunned some people, then I kind of stunk in Dracula, and that was a drag. And then Speed, and after that they didn't know what to think of me."
Is he self-critical?
"The worst!" he laughs. "I can't stand some of my performances. I was terrible in Dracula and thought the second half of Bill and Ted sucked. I'm grateful my part in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was trimmed. But if I thought about it too much, I'd never go in front of the camera again."
And he seldom sees his films on video. If he does, it is usually when he is "feeling melancholic and want to say hello to my friends. I watch it and go, 'I remember that day. We were doing this or that.' It brings back good memories."
Shock! Horror! Is the very private Keanu actually revealing something about his feelings? The protective star hardly ever gives a glimpse into his private world. In fact, fans have long been looking for clues to his life, but the actor stubbornly refuses to live a life fitting a Hollywood idol.
Of course, we do know that he prefers motorcycles to limos, scruffy T-shirts to Versace and we never see him date Gwyneth Paltrow or any members of the cast of Friends. In fact, we don't see Keanu dating anyone.
So the media speculates endlessly about the Beirut born and Toronto raised actor's life; his sexual preference, his sudden social lapses, his tendency to disappear or his reported partying. And Keanu continues to be mute on it all.
"I don't like to go to premieres and functions, and I try to keep as low-key a life as I can," he admits. "I lead a fairly boring life [which seems a little difficult to believe]. There's nothing much to talk about. And I don't care what people say about me."
Still, Keanu is never less than contradictory. He might wear a designer suit for interviews but he still sports hiking boots. Although he comes across as sweetly shy and always extremely polite, he obviously has a wilder side; riding his motorbikes too fast (he lost his licence and survived two serious crashes) and sporting black nail polish. He is a southpaw (he writes with his left hand), but plays bass with his right. And he might talk about roots (''I'm a real homebody") and still he is homeless, living in a hotel.
"I like to read and daydream," shrugs Keanu when asked about the contradictions. "But I also like to ride horses and bikes, play bass guitar, baseball and ice hockey. That's just the way I am."
Keanu, who began acting at age 14, seldom says anything about his upbringing, or his father - now serving a prison sentencein Hawaii on drug charges. In fact, Keanu rarely talks. Speed co-star Dennis Hopper once said of him, "Keanu is shy and introvert and difficult to talk to." Does the star himsel feel that this is an accurate description of him?
"I've been introverted and shy most of my life and I still am to a certain extent. But I wouldn't describe myself as that today. I feel I have opened up."
OK, let us test his renewed openness: What does he consider his weak points?
"If only I had one... my favourite weakness..." A long pause. "I don't know."
And how is his love life?"
"Oh, my... am I blushing? How can I say this nicely." An even longer pause. "It's none of anyone's business. I'm sort of Han Solo."
Has he ever been close to marriage?
But is he happy?
"Yeah, days have been good."
Always charming and utterly polite, Keanu is only chatty about work. And he doesn't see himself as a star.
"I never considered myself anything but an actor. It was just the industry's perception of me that changed with Speed, he insists, who has starred in three hit action films, Point Break, Speed and The Matrix, but doesn't want to be "defined by being an action hero. I do like the genre, but I also want to do other work."
"I've been fortunate in that I've been working - except for a couple of times - with exceptional people and different genres of film and different styles of cinema. I don't want to stay in the same spot and repeat. My ambition is to do variety.
"I will always be acting. It's my life's work. But I will never consider myself a celebrity. To me, I will always be just a working actor."
Review by Neil Corry
Reality bites back.
Reeves, Crown Prince of the Dodgy Movie (and King of the Even Dodgier Performance), will live for years off the buzz The Matrix has generated. It's a movie that's broken seasonal box-office records and sustained audience interest through amazing word-of-mouth and made the perfect move by coming out before the Star Wars prequel. One of those rare blockbusters that lives up to the hype, you'll want to see it again just for all the little things you might have missed because you were so dazzled the first time. The Matrix is a phenomenon, a movie that makes you thankful that cinema was even invented.
Practically sworn not to reveal the true nature of the Matrix by the movie's distributors, all you need to know is that clerk Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a bit of a slacker, selling illegal software on the side under the pseudonym 'Neo' to finance his computer hardware needs. He wants to find someone called Morpheus. He's searching for the answer to a question. He has no idea where the question came from. But the urge to discover the truth to 'What is The Matrix?' will lead him to places where nothing is what it seems and to people who hope he is The One...
Reeves gives the performance of his career as the naive Neo who bears the weight of discovering the truth about 'The Matrix'. Since his star quality is always about looking a little lost and a tad bemused, it really is perfect casting. Fishburne coolly underplays as Morpheus while newcomer Carrie-Anne Moss truly shines as Trinity, the most gob-smacking heroine of the decade.
But the real sstars of the movie are the directors. Anyone who has seen Bound will know to expect the unexpected. For the Wachowski brothers, perception is a toy to be played with, to manipulate as if it were plasticene. Not that The Matrix is remotely similar to Bound in terms of plot - but the brothers are masters of style and substance. This sci-fi classic, which it most definitely is, pays homage to (I won't say rip offs) at lesat a dozen well-known sci-fi movies and books but they give it such a twist, watching the movie is like having your brain squeezed. And I've not had so much fun in the cinema in a long time.
Laden with SFX so inventive you can't believe you're seeing them (and thankfully not to the detriment of the plot), The Matrix wins bonus points for the fight scenes. It's John Woo on Class 'A's. The elements of Hong Kong action homage cybernetically enhanced with fluid digital effects make the brutal and unforgiving fight sequences some of the most mind-wrenching displays of close-combat athleticism ever. Even with the high levels of violence, The Matrix is a work of at - both visually and intellectually.
Taking the absolute best of Hong Kong action films, comic books, manga and wrapped in a value-for-money $60 million sheen, it's a killer of a movie. You may never see the world quite the same again...