WHERE THEY STAND: Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves catches a lot of shit from a lot of people. He’s wooden, he’s boring, he can’t act. But considering his career for a moment, and the films he has been a part of, it seems a bit shortsighted to dismiss Keanu as a bad actor. A bad actor ruins a movie that could otherwise be good (see: Josh Hartnett). A bad actor tries to convey emotions that he cannot convey, thus coming off as corny or disingenuous (see: Josh Hartnett). A bad actor makes you NOT want to see a movie simply because of his/her presence (see: well… you get the idea). Keanu Reeves does none of these things. Perhaps his great films are great in spite of his performance, but I disagree. Where would the world be if there were no Keanu Reeves? Would we all get the same mental image – a flash of his face in some form or another – when someone says “whoa” like a stoned surfer if he were not in so many quality films over the last two decades? I think not.
Keanu Reeves, believe it or not, will be 46 this September. Over his career he might have one of the more diverse résumés of anyone his age. Reeves began early as an actor on television, like so many, and in small bit parts in small films, but we all know the film where Keanu would become, well, Keanu to us all. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was Reeves’ big break, but he was still Ted. He was second fiddle to Bill S. Preston, played by… um… that guy who was in The Lost Boys. Barely in The Lost Boys. Excellent Adventure was where America first got to hear Keanu deliver his signature line, “whoa,” his goofy stoner version of “I’ll be back.” Excellent Adventure was clearly not a good movie, but a fun one and a good start for Keanu and a good way to be noticed. From there Reeves could have gone any number of ways, but he wisely remained diverse. That’s right, I said Keanu Reeves was diverse.
Reeves would star in some smaller films over the next few years, even making an appearance as Todd, the dopey husband to a young Martha Plimpton in Parenthood. But in 1991, Reeves would appear all grown up and ready to kick some ass in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. The film, about a gang of surfing bank robbers, was a perfect transition for Reeves from clown to action star. The Southern California surfer vibe mixed with some top-notch action and thrills showcased Reeves’ ability to be a bankable action star and hold his own alongside someone like Patrick Swayze. After Point Break, Reeves did a second Bill and Ted’s film, but let’s go ahead and move past that.
In the year after Point Break’s success, Reeves starred as Scott in Gus Van Sant’s art-house hit My Own Private Idaho alongside the late River Phoenix. The part for Reeves, playing a hustler in Portland, was a vast departure from Point Break and Ted Logan, and proof that he could do even more than what he had shown. The next year he was Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious Dracula film. Many site Reeves as the weakest part of the picture, but I would argue that there were many many weak parts in that film, a film that sort of spiraled out of control. Over the next two years, Reeves would do a little Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, and a few smaller films like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But in 1994, Reeves would take the two breakout roles he had gotten so far, as Ted and then in Point Break, and add a third.
Speed definitely had a gimmick: there’s a bomb on a bus, the bus can’t drop below 50 or it will explode. But Speed also had some fantastic moments of action and tension unlike most action pictures you see today. Jan De Bont’s debut feature starred Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, and introduced the world to a young actress named Sandra Bullock, and was one of the biggest hits on 1994. Speed is a good old-fashioned action thriller that stands out still to this day, and proved once again that Reeves could carry a big movie and be a big-time action star. After Speed, Reeves was given every script imaginable, and squandered an opportunity to blossom for a few years. He starred in drivel like Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, and Feeling Minnesota; films that are diverse in ideas and plots, but not very diverse in quality. They were all pretty bad in their own way. But then, in 1997, Reeves would have another breakout year.
The year began with The Devil’s Advocate, a provocative supernatural thriller starring Reeves, Al Pacino, and a young actress named Charlize Theron. The film, about a young lawyer who may or may not be the son of Satan, is a fiery otherworldly horror picture with some great moments of shock. While it borrowed from any and every “devil film” before it, Devil’s Advocate was a clever, dark thriller that is most remembered through the over-the-top performance from Pacino. Nevertheless, Reeves made his mark on the picture as well, and actually had a bit more energy here than what you may be used to. Devil’s Advocate was a solid start for Reeves in 1997. Then 1999 would bring even bigger things, and a film that would change the film industry for years to come.
The Matrix was groundbreaking on so many levels, and spawned two (terrible) sequels. Despite the mess of the second two, the original Matrix is one of the best science-fiction films ever, and Reeves is, once again, front and center of a smash hit. And we again got to hear Reeves say “whoa.” A slick, crafty sci-fi thriller, The Matrix would change the special effects at the time and create a cavalcade of parodies and knockoffs. Unfortunately, the allure and the freshness of the original film, and even the energy of Reeves’ performance, would disappear in the stale, confusing, drawn out second and third films, films that I like to imagine never happened. I think Trinity is still dying as we speak.
After The Matrix, Reeves would again try diverse roles that would, again, fall flat. There was the lame football comedy The Replacements, the incredibly sappy romantic drama Sweet November, and even Reeves trying to play the bad guy in Sam Raimi’s misstep The Gift, and The Watcher. Aside from working on the Matrix sequels in the last decade, Reeves has floundered a bit in more forgettable roles. He tried his hand as an edgy cop in Street Kings, tried a re-teaming with Sandra Bullock in the ridiculous romance The Lake House, and tried to start another franchise as an undead chain smoking servant of Satan in Constantine. Constantine was a stylish, sometimes entertaining flick, but nothing to write home about. Reeves would also star in the ill-advised remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie I had to turn off because I was falling asleep. It was also a film that everyone would point to and say “this one should be good for Reeves, he plays an alien with no personality.”
The personality is in there, it is in Reeves’ better films, be it Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, or even The Devil’s Advocate. Sure, Reeves is a wooden personality, a stiff person, but in the roles and films that succeed, Reeves’ wooden demeanor fits perfectly. He can show a range of emotion effectively, albeit a limited one. There are things he should do (action) and things he should not do (romance). Wooden or not, Reeves deserves to be in GENERAL ADMISSION.