Movie Idols #18 (UK), February 2000
Reeves on the Line
Think of Keanu Reeves and you may think of many things. Action star, exotic-looking leading man, surfer dude or inarticulate voice of disgruntled youth. In his time he has been all these things and more, riding a wave of critical derision and popular acclaim with consummate skill and - it has to be said - increasing success.
The truly impressive thing about the 35-year-old son of a Hawaiian-Chinese father and English mother is that he has constantly sought to play with this image, to experiment with and stretch the boundaries of his acting talent. Some may scoff but he takes risks with the choices he makes and when they work they work very well indeed.
Born in Beirut on September 2, 1964, Keanu (his name means 'cool breeze over the mountains') lived in a variety of places as a child, from the Lebanon to Australia, New York to Toronto. Never the brightest of students he quit school aged 15 to devote his energies to acting. Sport, the pursuit of speed (his body is laced with scars from motorbiking accidents) and the chance to act formed a focus for his energies.
Although he was a veteran of several forgettable Canadian TV movies, it was sport that led to his movie debut, in the Rob Lowe ice-hockey pic Youngblood. Whetting his appetite for film-making, Reeves embarked on a life-changing journey from his home in Toronto to Los Angeles. In 1986 he was cast in the darkly disturbing low-budget tale, River's Edge and earned rapturous reviews for his performance. Not widely seen, it put his name on the tongues of those who could pronounce it.
Soon everyone was saying it, or trying to, when he set hearts a-flutter as the dashing Chevalier Danceny, suitor to the lovely Cecile (Uma Thurman) in Dangerous Liaisons. Forced into action when his beloved is deflowered by the roguish Valmont (John Malkovich), Danceny plays a crucial role in the drama, and Reeves acquitted himself very well amid a high quality cast.
From high drama to low comedy, as next he played down to his dumb Valley-kid persona in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. A low-budget movie, this persistently good-natured film eked laughs from the well-meaning idiocy of its central characters, Ted 'Theodore' Logan (Reeves), and Bill S Preston (Alex Winter). The character description read: 'Ted is 17. He's cool, fun and hip', and that's just how Reeves played him. Teen audiences seemed to agree and helped make this engaging comedy a surprise hit.
As his fame grew, so did the variety of acting roles he attempted and the amount of interest in his personal life, an interest about which Reeves remains studiously tight-lipped. While his name has been linked with a variety of eligible women, his current relationship with Jennifer Syme has been clouded by the loss of their baby, which reports state was still-born on Christmas Eve. Such tragedies put celebrity into stark perspective.
But then Keanu Reeves never seems to have craved fame so much as artistic nourishment, or a good simple enjoyment of what he's doing. The chance to work with Francis Ford Coppola on Bram Stoker's Dracula or Kenneth Branagh on Much Ado About Nothing may have overridden any doubts that he was up to the task of playing such strong, dramatic roles in period dramas. Then again, his performance in the cod-Shakespearean tale My Own Private Idaho still stands as arguably his best on film.
His career was changed forever by the success of Speed, in 1994, which became a smash hit and made superstars of Reeves and co-star Sandra Bullock. It also reinforced his image as an action hero, a role he had played to good effect in Point Break three years before.
Unfortunately this success was followed with two films which fared less well, but they at least showed the actor's taste for interesting projects. A Walk in the Clouds was a lushly photographed romance that had echoes of a 1950s melodrama, but the public did not warm to it. Johnny Mnemonic, meanwhile, was a dull and confusing attempt to translate William Gibson's cyberpunk novella to the big screen. It failed dismally, but the theme and genre presaged a film that would prove a huge hit four years later, a startling blockbuster called The Matrix.
When the offer came for Reeves to reprise his biggest hit in Speed 2 some were rather surprised when he refused. They were more surprised still when he cited commitments to his band, Dogstar, as the reason for turning his back on a multi-million dollar paycheck for a film that seemed a sure-fire hit. In hindsight his reasons seem perfectly sound, as the film sank without trace at the box-office.
He was similarly single-minded when offered a role opposite Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. This time he had signed to play Hamlet on stage in Winnipeg. Opinions vary as to the quality of his performance but he at least retained the courage of his convictions. He did get the chance to work with Pacino some time later in The Devil's Advocate, where, as a talented young lawyer, Reeves hit all the right notes opposite his gleefully scenery-chewing co-star. And in the theme of the film, the almost Faustian deals that many of us must strike to get on in life, he recognized echoes with his working life in Tinseltown - and beyond.
"It's a metaphor for all places, not just Hollywood. I hope the film is not just limited to lawyers or to Hollywood or anything like that - even journalists," he added with a grin. "The film is about all those decisions we make - and yes, I've had many of those myself. Some you win, and some you lose and they boil a hole in your stomach, but hopefully you can get them out one day."
For his very best work, for the physicality that makes him a quality action star and the sense of humour that makes him an engaging film comedian, Keanu Reeves deserves his success. And with two eagerly awaited sequels to the massively popular Matrix being planned, it looks like he'll be able to enjoy it for some considerable time to come.