In Defense of Keanu Reeves
by Sharon Knolle
In reviewing Keanu Reeves' latest film, 'Henry's Crime,' critic Rex Reed snipes, "the only surprise in it is finding Keanu Reeves in a role that requires some acting. The movie is not great, but the star is not bad. This, in some quarters, is high praise indeed."
Reed's certainly not alone: A large chunk of the moviegoing public would agree, that Keanu guy just can't act.
Maybe it's because he's so darn good looking that he fails to get any respect. Or because it's so easy to peg him as that "excellent" dude from 'Bill and Ted's Adventure.' (A third film is in the works, by the way.) It's true we've never seen Reeves really chew the scenery. If anything, he's guilty of chronic underplaying. And some tragic accents, we'll give you that, haters. He's been dubbed "inscrutable" by IMDB, a word that either conjures up old Charlie Chan comparisons or is just a backhanded way of saying he needs to develop a few more facial expressions.
Reeves himself didn't take offense, telling Indiewire, "I don't really feel like [my roles like Neo in 'The Matrix' films] are inscrutable, but they have a strong interior life. These characters are on very internal journeys."
There are actually those of us who like Keanu, not just because he's hot. (He just received the inaugural Honorary Excellence in Acting Award from the Woodstock Festival. Then again, it's the Woodstock Festival. And they used the word "excellent.")
We ask, have you ever seen him in 'The Gift?' It's a small, indie film in which Reeves plays a sociopathic redneck who may have killed his mistress. And he does it very well. It's probably his most intense film performance, one in which he's believably scary when he threatens psychic Cate Blanchett. The film itself is sadly predictable. If you can't tell who the murderer is before the reveal, you don't get out enough. But Keanu, in this dark role, is a revelation. (And his Southern accent ain't bad.)
Speaking of dark, his turn as an aimless teen in one of his early films, 'River's Edge,' helps anchor the film. He's one of the most sympathetic students who don't know what to do when a friend murders his girlfriend. In an ensemble where Crispin Glover is so hyper, a line about his character being "hopped up on speed" was reportedly added to the script to explain his behavior, Reeves' character feels real.
He was also the calm center of 'The Devil's Advocate,' holding his own against an epically evil Al Pacino and a losing-her-mind Charlize Theron.
He's been funny not only in the 'Bill & Ted' films, but as a clueless would-be assassin in 'I Love You to Death.' Okay, we know he does not-so-bright exceedingly well. Let's talk about when he plays smart. Say what you will about 'Speed,' but when Jack Traven assesses a bomb-rigged elevator and comes up with a solution worthy of McGyver, I believe that guy is smart. It's a film where you can actually see the gears grinding behind that often blank mask. (Maybe his characters are a little bit inscrutable.)
And in real life, Keanu was smart enough to skip that dreadful 'Speed' sequel.
Keanu did say yes to 'The Matrix' sequels, however, a smart financial decision but one that was painful to sit through. You want proof that Keanu has a range: It was there in the first 'Matrix' film, as Kevin Anderson (Note: WAIT, WHAT. KEVIN. KEVIN. - Ani) discovers that his entire life is a lie, as his (and our) mind is blown and as he embraces his destiny. He experiences fear, wonder, disbelief, joy. In the sequels, there's no more room for emotion; Neo has become as soulless as any computer program. Keanu makes for a very attractive mannequin, but fans felt the difference and were rightly disappointed. (And, really, that rave was ridiculous.)
I'm fond of Keanu in 'Constantine,' despite my hatred for the crappy CGI demons. And despite his looking nothing like the graphic novel's main character. There is a playfulness and a resigned quality to his dying-of-cancer, demon-exorcising character, not unlike your typically world-weary noir detective. When Bogart was that deadpan, it was art. When Keanu does it, for some reason, it's considered anything but.
And tell me you honestly would prefer Jack Nicholson's philandering old codger to Keanu's younger, handsome, loyal doctor in 'Something's Gotta Give.' And that you don't swoon a little for how right he feels in the period romance, 'A Walk in the Clouds.'
Although the 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' remake was rightly slammed as a misfire, Keanu brought a real menace to the role of the mysterious alien.
Some of you might wince to hear that he's planning to make his directorial debut (in something tentatively called 'Man of Tai Chi,') and that it'll be shot all in Mandarin, but I'm happy to hear that he'll play an English-speaking villain. Keanu going dark is always intriguing.
I remember being deeply offended when a magazine compared Keanu Reeves to the late film noir icon Robert Mitchum (my favorite actor of all time), but maybe there is something to that after all. Even if Reeves will never have the intimidating physical presence of Mitchum, they at least have in common their love of underplaying, and the lack of respect that often goes with that.
As Keanu ages (very gracefully), he continues to straddle the indie and blockbuster worlds. As with anybody else, sometimes the films, regardless of size, are a poor fit for him. Sometimes the films are just irredeemably bad. And maybe Keanu's just not your type. But please, don't tell me he can't act. I'm not claiming he's the Greatest Living Actor, or anything like that, just that what he does, he does subtly. And there are those of us who appreciate that.