Keanu Reeves' excellent comeback
NEW YORK - Three summers ago, Hollywood pundits were starting to write off actor Keanu Reeves.
The sequel to the 1994 action film Speed, his first mega-hit, was about to come out, and Reeves wasn't in it. Instead, he had a supporting role in a little independent film with a downer title, The Last Time I Committed Suicide.
He also had a couple of big-budget flops under his belt. Critics were still sniping that he wasn't much of an actor, despite his turn as Hamlet in a 1995 stage series at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre. At 32, the Beirut-born, Toronto-raised Reeves wasn't the youngest heartthrob on the block. And his side project, the rock trio Dogstar, couldn't even get an album released.
Three years later, almost everyone knows that Speed 2, the flick he avoided, was a bomb from which he cleverly saved himself. But never mind that. Reeves at 35 is, quite simply, hotter than he's ever been. On the strength of last summer's sci-fi action smash hit The Matrix, he has been able to revitalize his career and even move it up a level or two.
His first film since The Matrix, the football comedy The Replacements opens Friday. Though it's not poised to be the biggest film of the summer, some are calling The Replacements a possible sleeper hit. Reeves is front and centre as a former college football star who gets a second shot at glory. His take for this movie is a reported $12 million (U.S.), and he's said to be getting even more for The Matrix sequels - two of them, which both begin shooting early next year.
As for Dogstar, it finally has an album out called, appropriately enough, Happy Ending.
The eternally laid-back Reeves doesn't seem to be too excited by all this. "I've had the good fortune in the past year to have the opportunity to act," he says laconically. "It's been busy but really good."
Isn't it nice not to have to worry about money or your next acting job?
"You always have to worry," he replies, adding that his recent successes don't affect his take on his career. "I guess I just don't connect them. I look for work, I work on parts, hopefully I make good films. If success means I get to act again, I'm grateful."
Reeves has been appearing in movies with remarkable regularity since his debut in 1986, in the Rob Lowe hockey film Youngblood. He's been in critically acclaimed movies such as River's Edge, My Own Private Idaho and Much Ado About Nothing. He's been in commercial successes Speed, Bram Stoker's Dracula and, more recently, The Devil's Advocate, with Al Pacino.
It can never be said that Reeves has played it safe in his role choices. He's portrayed the living deity Prince Siddhartha for film maestro Bernardo Bertolucci in the epic Little Buddha as well as the blissfully ignorant teenage airhead Ted in the goofy comedy hit Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Unfortunately, he is sometimes portrayed in the media as a real-life version of Ted: a kind of thick, in-over-his-head dude who inexplicably keeps succeeding. The comparison was reiterated every time a studio put him in a high-profile film that ended up performing poorly, duds that included Point Break, Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction.
In The Replacements, Reeves plays Shane Falco, a once-promising college quarterback who, thanks to some bad breaks, never made it in the pros. Now, thanks to a strike by pro players, he gets a long-delayed shot at glory. In Reeves' words: "He's a hard-luck guy who gets a second chance to put his life back together."
It's probably too pat to make the direct connection between Falco's and Reeves' respective fates. Certainly Reeves is having none of that. Asked if he, like Falco, has ever felt underestimated, the actor chuckles and says, "The deep question."
The answer? "Not by my peers . . . sometimes by critics."
Reeves chose The Replacements to be his first film post-Matrix because he liked the script. "It was funny and it had heart. The characters had a real authenticity."
He also appreciated working with veteran Oscar winner Gene Hackman - Reeves calls him "Mr. Hackman" - who plays the team's coach.
A life-long athlete with a sporting 6-foot-1 physique - he played hockey while growing up in Toronto - Reeves is built well for physically demanding roles. And he's good at them. He studied kung-fu extensively to prepare for the eye-opening computer-aided action scenes in The Matrix.
In a more down-to-earth fashion, he trained for two months to play the quarterback in The Replacements. The film's many football scenes involved pros and former pros mixed in with the cast, and many of the actors endured a tough, three-week training camp. As Reeves puts it: "It hurt. I had six ice packs in my freezer. I'd wrap my arms, my knees, my feet, every day."
There was nothing worse, he says, than getting stepped on by a 240-pound lineman wearing cleats.
Reeves is now set to embark on more tough physical preparation for the two Matrix sequels. Becoming adept at the martial arts includes "similar physical dedication, but a different kind of pain."
Before he does his action thing again, audiences will see his softer, more dramatic side in a couple of coming films. In Sweet November, a romantic comedy/drama, he teams with his Devil's Advocate co-star Charlize Theron. Then, in The Gift, in which Reeves takes on the role of a wife beater for director Sam Raimi, his co-star is 1999's best actress Oscar winner, Hilary Swank. Exploring the dark role was, Reeves says, "revelatory."
Finally, the actor, who clearly has a sense of humour about his career, says he couldn't be happier to find that the lame-brained comic creations Bill and Ted continue to inspire rabid fans. Reeves admits he's often greeted in the street by shouts of "Excellent!" - the ubiquitous catch-phrase of those aspiring but talentless rock stars.
"I love that. I love those guys," Reeves says.