Prince of Darkness
Keanu Reeves may be well known for playing Ted, Neo and various hunky cops, but there's a lot more to the Constantine star than broody good looks.
Teenage girls may be distressed by the new film Constantine, because it places its sexy lead Keanu Reeves in some very unpleasant situations indeed. Most of them involve fighting demons in a fiery underworld located somewhere below present-day Los Angeles. But this is all in a day's work for John Constantine, Reeves' character in the dark thriller, which is based on the gothic Hellblazer graphic novels.
Born with the ability to recognise the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human form, Constantine kills himself to escape this weighty responsibility. He's then sent back to Earth to earn his salvation by fighting the hordes of demons-in-disguise, joining forces with Rachel Weisz's police detective to unravel the mystery behind her sister's death.
Constantine is an unconventional action-movie hero. A hard-drinking, disillusioned man who only does good deeds as a way of saving his own hide. The role is unfamiliar territory for Reeves after his recent appearances in comedies Something's Gotta Give and Thumbsucker and, of course, as Neo in The Matrix trilogy. But the 40-year-old actor embraces unfamiliar territory - while he may be renowned for playing action heroes and teen slackers, he's actually challenged himself with a range of roles over the years.
Keanu kicked off his acting career in Toronto, where he settled with his English mother and the second of her four husbands after stints m New York, Australia and Lebanon. He was always more interested in acting and hockey than his studies, earning the nickname "The Wall" for his prowess in goal. He's been self-deprecating about his lack of academic ability - which probably didn't seem like a such a barrier when he earned a US$35m box office percentage for The Matrix - and even said on one occasion: "I'm a meathead man. You've got smart people, and you've got dumb people. I just happen to be dumb."
Reeves made his professional acting debut in 1979 as a street kid in the TV comedy Hanging In, with a first line that makes even Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure seem profound.
"Hey, lady, can I use the shower?" The young actor quickly picked up his practice of taking commercial gigs to fund more interesting work, co-hosting one series of a kids' programme and starring in ads for Coke and Kellogg's Cornflakes while appearing in plays such as Wolfboy. In this controversial production, Reeves played a suicidal teenager who is sent to a psychiatric hospital and seduced by a disturbed male prostitute who thinks he s a wolf. Good training for his later role opposite River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant's homoerotic interpretation of Shakespeare's Henry IV.
The 1984 hockey film Youngblood not only combined Reeves' two passions but also proved to be his big-screen breakthrough. It teamed him up with Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, later to be his co-star on surf thriller Point Break, and gave Reeves the confidence to have a crack at Tinseltown. He arrived in Hollywood in his aged Volvo with US$3.000 to his name - which, incidentally, an agent briefly persuaded him to drop in favour of his initials, KC.
Such half-arsed advice did not hold 'KC' Reeves back and success soon came in the form of River's Edge, a thriller about teen angst and a corpse by the river in which lone Skye plays Reeves' girlfriend and Dennis Hopper messes with their minds as the local nutter. This led to a string of parts for Reeves as dopey drop-outs in baggy t-shirts, which now look as dated as the historical figures recruited by the time-travelling losers Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted 'Theodore' Logan for their history project. Reeves and Alex Winter were famously cast as Ted and Bill respectively despite auditioning for the other's part.
Bill and Ted… spawned a whole genre of high school slacker comedies, and Reeves himself soon started to feel typecast in films such as Bill and Ted's Bogus Adventure, the Steve Martin comedy Parenthood and I Love You To Death. "I used to have nightmares that they would put 'He played Ted' on my tombstone," he later said. Keanu eventually broke out of the mould by playing roles such as FBI agent Johnny Utah in Point Break, a vampire-slayer in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula and Siddharta in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha.
If Reeves had nightmares during the mid-90s, they would have been about having 'Action Hero' on his tombstone, as he followed Point Break with Speed, Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction. The 'Action Hero' prejudice persists today, though perhaps unfairly in fact, these films and The Matrix trilogy are the only unashamed box office assaults Reeves has dabbled with during his career. He's also starred in plenty of more sophisticated thrillers, such as Constantine and The Devil's Advocate with Al Pacino, and been consistently involved with independent film and theatre.
But this prejudice is the least of Reeves' problems. His often-understated performances have led many critics to question whether he can even act. This does seem unfair if you consider the variety of roles he's played - from an ad exec in Sweet November to, er, Ortiz the Dog Boy in Freaked - and the talent he's chosen to work with, such as John Malkovich and Glen Close in Dangerous Liaisons and Gene Hackman in The Replacements. These films also showed his commitment to his craft rather than his bank balance. He turned down the lead role in The Fly 2 to appear in Dangerous Liaisons, and took a 90 per cent pay-cut and deferred his salary for The Replacements so the studio could afford to hire Hackman.
Then there's his instinct for spotting successful movies where others can't. He look the part of Neo after Ewan McGregor and Will Smith had turned it down, and bagged the role of Jack Traven in Speed after it had been offered to Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp and both William and Stephen Baldwin. Unlike Sandra Bullock, however, he sensibly steered well clear of the decidedly naff Speed 2: Cruise Control.
And don't target his dedication. He spent four months learning kung fu for The Matrix, and consulted counsellors and spent three weeks driving round redneck-packed Georgia before playing violent southerner Donnie Barksdale in Sam Rami's The Gift.
He's come a long way since Wolfboy and Ortiz the Dog Boy but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that, one day, Keanu Reeves could take home an Oscar. Certainly, if it were down to fans instead of Academy votes, he'd be guaranteed one for every movie.