Empire (UK), December 15, 2008
The Genius Of Keanu
by Helen O'Hara
The realisation that I was a Keanu Reeves apologist came upon me slowly. Through my teenage years it was perfectly acceptable to like him because, well, pretty! And then there was The Matrix, and everyone liked him, and there was no need for defence of this most elusive of A-listers at all. And while I would have defended him for the Matrix sequels, I and everyone else was too busy dealing with the disappointment to start pointing fingers at a mere star, when there was the whole damn film to condemn. So it probably wasn’t until Constantine that I realised that my high regard for him is controversial, and that – controversy be damned – I still think he’s massively underrated.
Here’s the thing: Keanu’s been in far too many great (yes, great) movies to be either stupid or a bad actor. He’s worked with too many great directors, who speak well of him, to be as much of a dim bulb as the tabloids would have us think. If he were merely some sort of drone, he wouldn’t have played a (reportedly very good) Hamlet onstage in Canada, or taken a risk by playing Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha instead of starring in, I don’t know, Jurassic Park*.
And yes, I said great movies. Bill and Ted defined both a genre and an era, and remains the standard by which dumb teen buddy comedies should be judged. Wayne’s World was a contender for its crown; nothing else comes close. Point Break is an astonishingly good action movie (even with the gay undertones), and Speed is a practically perfect model of that genre. And then there’s The Matrix, Reeves the calm centre grounding a plot that without him would seem incomprehensible. As I write this, I’m just watching it (on Blu-ray!) for the first time in aaaaages, and remembering how frickin’ astonishing that film is, and how much of a revelation it was for a film fan in 1999, and how far any of the homages or spoofs are from equalling it, at least when you watch it untainted by what came afterwards.
Keanu’s also good-to-very-good in River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho, Little Buddha, Constantine, The Devil’s Advocate and A Scanner Darkly – and perfectly OK in many more. The problem, for a lot of people, is that he’s so low key you can miss his performances entirely. His critics say that he merely reacts, apparently overlooking the fact that that’s pretty much all any hero does, that it’s practically a truism. And they say that he’s expressionless, dead eyed, but I think that’s the very quality that makes him a star. The fact that he holds back, that there’s a sense of something mysterious behind his expression, makes him both compelling and strangely relatable. It also makes him equally perfect casting to play an alien, or the Buddha, or an FBI agent turned surfer dude. He's a cypher, as all the great stars really were.
So, fellow Cool-Breeze-Over-The-Mountains fans, let us band together and stand up for the guy. He’s had tough breaks in his personal life, and carried himself with dignity and decorum throughout. He was branded a loon once for shaving his eyebrows (turned up to be for a little film called The Matrix, so the laugh was on the tabloids that time) and been nicknamed Cool-Breeze-Between-The-Ears**, and faced a hostile, muddy Glastonbury audience in pursuing his oft-derided musical sideline, and he’s still trucking. Frankly, in a world that tolerates Paris Hilton and those frightful plastic people who star in The Hills, we need stars like Keanu Reeves. Long may he reign. Oh, and I even like The Day The Earth Stood Still, so there.
*that year’s box office winner, and incidentally let’s imagine how awesome Keanu would have been in most roles in that film. Especially the T-Rex.
**I must confess to having a weakness for this perjorative nickname, since at least it’s a tiny bit clever.