Why Keanu won’t play ball
by Allan Hunter
Director: Brian Robbins
Starring: Keanu Reeves
IT MUST be tough being Keanu Reeves. You make your mark playing daft dudes in goofy comedies, weather the transition to more adult material, work with world class directors like Gus Van Sant, Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola and even establish yourself as an A-list action hero in Speed (1994) and The Matrix (1999). It’s the career path of a Hollywood young gun’s dreams and yet to the critics, Reeves remains their favourite whipping boy.
Dismissed as impassive, inscrutable and just plain wooden, Reeves can do no right according to most hostile commentators. He just seems to bring out the meanness in them. Contemporaries who have had their own share of misfires seem to receive a fairer hearing. Tom Cruise, for instance, has gradually won respect by balancing crowd-pleasing blockbusters with more challenging roles for the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson. He now has three Oscar nominations to his credit. Brad Pitt has followed a similar pattern, matching an Ocean’s Eleven with a Fight Club and even he has an Oscar nomination for Twelve Monkeys. Reeves, who is 38 in September, has yet to catch the Academy’s eye and has a career defined by unpredictability rather than a clear and canny strategy.
The trouble with Reeves is that he seems more interested in risk than reward, more willing to test his abilities than consolidate his star status. It’s hard to imagine Cruise or Pitt abandoning Hollywood to journey to Winnipeg and tackle Hamlet on stage as Reeves did in 1995. At roughly the same time, he was begging Cyrano de Bergerac director Jean-Paul Rappeneau to consider him for the lead role in Le Hussard sur le Toit and was more than willing to learn French, improve his riding skills and do whatever the role required. Rappeneau was tempted but gave the part to Gallic hunk Olivier Martinez. Cruise has promised his fans that there will be a Mission: Impossible 3. Despite the lure of a large pay cheque and a clear public appetite for a sequel, Reeves would have nothing to do with Speed 2 and on that occasion his instincts were proved right - the finished film was a deserved flop.
His instincts don’t often serve him so well. The Reeves hall of shame is unusually well stocked with turkeys and embarrassments that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, including lumbering action thriller Chain Reaction, charmless sibling rivals drama Feeling Minnesota and the laughable cyber thriller Johnny Mnemonic. His post-Matrix track record proves the point. The huge success of that film probably gave him the freedom to do anything he wanted and yet his follow-up roles were decidedly eccentric, ranging from the anodyne serial killer in the tacky thriller The Watcher to the bearded, wife-beating redneck in sappy supernatural chiller The Gift. These roles may have been challenging but they are not the choices of someone preoccupied with maintaining their star status.
The irony of Reeves’s latest release, Hardball, is that he gives a perfectly believable performance in a corny, all-American production that few British viewers will make the effort to see. An uneasy mixture of social realism and sentimentality, it was inspired by the true story of Daniel Coyle’s time coaching a baseball team in Chicago’s tough housing projects. In the film, Reeves plays a luckless, down-at-heel gambler heavily in debt to the bookies. Offered the chance to coach a youth baseball team for 500 a week, he simply cannot refuse and thus the stage is set for an entirely predictable saga of personal redemption through a devotion to the concerns and dreams of others.
Hardball makes at least some token attempts to deal honestly with the urban misfits that Reeves is hired to coach. These are no adorable angels but foul-mouthed little devils who can identify the make of a gun just by hearing the sound of it firing. Their backyard is more of a battleground than a community and people die on these mean streets. Unfortunately, it also feels obliged to follow the tried and trusted formula of Hollywood sports movies where team spirit builds self-respect and everyone winds up a winner, especially the cynical coach who has learned to see beyond his own selfish desires.
Reeves is becoming something of a specialist at such roles. His shallow, self-obsessed yuppie was taught how to stop and smell the coffee by the love of a good woman in the glossy weepie Sweet November. His slick legal eagle discovered that there was more to life than flash suits and fast women after tangling with Al Pacino’s seductive Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate. It seems to be the kind of role he does best and in Hardball, he brings a modest sense of conviction to his reformed gambler, even managing the demands of a tearful funeral eulogy when one of his charges falls victim to a drive-by shooting.
Officially off the market as he completes the lengthy production work on the back-to-back Matrix sequels, Reeves’ performance in Hardball offers the possibility that he may yet surprise us all. His decision to tackle a bizarre range of characters is unusual for someone of his stature. His desire to avoid the predictable career pattern is admirable. All he really needs to do now is start coming up with the goods and even his sternest critics could be silenced.
Hardball is on general release from Friday. 106 mins