The Guardian (UK), April 12, 2008
I'm non-sticking with you!
Keanu Reeves has starred in countless duds but that doesn't stop Joe Queenan from loving him. So who are the other Teflon thespians that can somehow survive any box office bomb
by Joe Queenan
A long, long time ago, those of us who love Keanu Reeves decided that no matter how many dismal movies like Johnny Mnemonic he made, and no matter how inept his acting in A Walk In The Clouds, and no matter how inappropriate his casting in Much Ado About Nothing and Bram Stoker's Dracula, we would never stop being thrilled when news of an exciting new Keanu project was announced. There was something about Keanu Reeves that we liked, and nothing could ever change that. It probably helped that he was great looking. I mean: great looking.
There have always been actors that the public love so much that they will forgive any faux pas. Jimmy Cagney, in part because of his bellicose ethnicity and all-around feistiness, is in this class, as are Sean Connery and Gene Hackman. Connery has repeatedly been absolved of all his sins throughout his long career: first because of James Bond, then because of The Man Who Would Be King, and then because of The Untouchables, but mostly because there was something about Sean Connery that no other actor of his generation possessed. He not only was the first actor to play James Bond; he was James Bond.
Gene Hackman has had a similar, though not identical experience; since his 1971 breakthrough in The French Connection, Hackman has struck a chord with Americans that no other actor of his generation could, not even Jack Nicholson. Hackman, who makes loads of bad movies but never gives a bad performance, projects an uncompromising masculinity, and never resorts to irony. Nicholson, by contrast, has been known to camp it up, and often seems a bit shifty, unreliable, morally rudderless. Nicholson is like Bill Clinton; Hackman is more like George Washington.
At least in the US, Michael Caine has been revered for so long that not even Jaws IV or The Swarm hurt his image, though in Caine's case, by his own admission, the genius lies in (1) making movies so bad they vanish without a trace, and (2) never making more than four in succession. Charismatic and talented, striking-looking without being a bona fide matinee idol, Caine made a number of memorable movies when he was young and has periodically surfaced in great movies ever since. On a much lower artistic level, the same can be said about Harrison Ford, Will Smith and Bruce Willis, who go on long losing streaks without ever forgoing the public's affection.
By contrast, the public did eventually stop liking Ben Affleck, who has now retreated from the fray and become a director. Amiable enough in Good Will Hunting and Chasing Amy, Affleck flopped as an action hero in Daredevil and The Sum Of All Fears, and was perfectly appalling in Jersey Girl. An actor whose attempts to convey emotion are constantly upstaged by a jaw that suggests the presence of an osteoid solidity the actor himself does not possess, Affleck has reached the point in his career where his mere presence in a film now embarrasses the public, which belatedly regrets its initial affection.
The difference between Affleck and Reeves - other than looks and the fact that Ben Affleck was never in a movie like Point Break, much less The Matrix - is that Affleck, a very bad actor, is not a movie star while Reeves, who is not so much a bad actor as a non-actor, most assuredly is. Once you are a movie star, raising the question of your acting ability is not only irrelevant; it borders on the impolite. Though some may find the analogy needlessly provocative, Keanu Reeves' career has always reminded me of John Wayne's. Wayne was a charismatic but limited actor who appeared in many cruddy films. But because of his looks, and because he was smart enough to land jobs in a handful of great movies (Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Searchers), the public, once it fell in love with him, never fell out of love. Even those who detested his right-wing politics retained a lingering affection for Wayne The Icon, because once the public gives its heart to somebody, it doesn't like to ask for it back. To do so would be to admit that it was wrong in the first place. The public hates doing that. This fusion of self-reproach with regret is sometimes referred to as The Affleck Appraisal.
Like John Wayne, Keanu is spectacularly limited as an actor. Defined more by a guileless earnestness than any real ability to project a sense that inner emotional activity is taking place, Reeves has been cunning enough to snare roles in a handful of outstanding motion pictures. These include the creepy cult film River's Edge, the lovably cretinous Bill & Ted pictures, the clever, narcoleptic repackaging of Shakespeare's Henry IV that was My Own Private Idaho, the classic action film Speed, the endearingly improbable undercover-surfing-cop classic Point Break and The Matrix. In most of these movies, Keanu plays a character the audience views more with affection than with reverence or idolatry, like a kid brother who has bitten off more than he can chew and may need outside help to survive. Personally speaking, when I go to see a Keanu Reeves movie, I feel fiercely protective of the actor, wishing to see him shielded from the forces of darkness and the draconian rigors of the English language. If you were casting Keanu Reeves in a fairytale, it would not be Jack & The Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty. It would be Hansel & Gretel. Like the frail, helpless children who have been abandoned in the deep, dark forest, Keanu has been left to fend for himself in a menacing netherworld dominated by Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Crowe and the Big Bad Wolf. When we go to see his movies, we are not rooting for him to prevail. We are rooting for him to survive.
Keanu Reeves belongs to that rarefied category of actors whose lapses in judgment, sub-par performances and box-office reverses are never held against them. This is a group whose reigning czar is Christopher Walken, a beloved actor who almost never appears in a good movie any more (his last was 2002's Catch Me If You Can). Initially revered for his dreamy, macabre performance in The Deer Hunter, Walken is better known today for his turns in such camp classics as Suicide Kings, that hilarious Fatboy Slim video, and for the unforgettable scene in True Romance where he and Dennis Hopper trade insults.
Rarely asked to do anything other than to be Christopher Walken these days, Walken has delivered superb walk-on performances in such recent fare as Hairspray, The Rundown, Click and Balls Of Fury. None of these films have much to recommend them other than that Walken is in them. But the stench of the motion picture never attaches to the actor himself. He is the prodigal son, and there is no sin the prodigal son can commit that will not be forgiven.
Samuel L Jackson also belongs in this rather special club. Once taken seriously as an actor, Jackson over the years has developed a trademark persona he uses in one film after another. It is a personna that is particularly popular with young men, many of whom would like to be able to swear convincingly in front of other men who can. In films such as Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Deep Blue Sea and most especially Snakes On A Plane, Jackson is reliably macho, relentless, volcanic and profane. Nobody cares any more whether Samuel L Jackson's films are worth watching. People just want to see him on that (expletive deleted) plane with those (expletive deleted) snakes. I know I do.
Worthy actors like Guy Pierce and Kevin Spacey and Dennis Quaid and Christian Bale must ask themselves what it takes to get voted into the club of Teflon thespians who are never hauled up on charges of professional malfeasance, who are never called on to the carpet and asked to atone for their cinematic crimes.
The situation is equally baffling on the distaff side. Neither Gigli nor Jersey Girl vitiated the public's affection for the artistically emaciated Jennifer Lopez, and Lucy Liu continues to find work despite being the worst actress in the solar system. Diane Lane's regularly scheduled bombs have not cooled the public's ardor for her work, and Barbra Streisand could go on making movies decades after her burial without alienating her massive fan base. Meanwhile, everyone from Emily Watson to Kathleen Quinlan to Thandie Newton to Madeleine Stowe must be wondering how come they didn't fall in love with us?
What makes Keanu Reeves' career so remarkable, of course, is that he is not even as resourceful an actor as Jennifer Lopez, yet has accomplished so much more. This is what makes his triumph all the more inspiring. Armed with great looks and an exotic name, but entering the lists with no more than negligible gifts, Keanu Reeves went out and conquered the world. This week, his new film Street Kings will be released, and those of us who love him will be out there in force to see it. We hope it will be good, but if it is not we will not hold it against him. We never have before; why start now?