Whoa. The Films of Keanu Reeves
by Jason Anderson
Jan. 11-April 5. TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Keanu—awesome or bogus? The debate is not as contentious as it was during Reeves’s first flush of fame in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when moviegoers weren’t necessarily sure what to make of his trademark look of slack-jawed insouciance or the Jeff Spicoli-esque cadence of his speech. While these attributes allowed the Beirut-born, Toronto-bred actor to mesh perfectly with certain roles—like his brooding, proto-grunge heartthrobs in River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho or the puppyish Ted of the Bill & Ted comedies—it wasn’t pretty when the persona and the part weren’t so copacetic. That said, it tended to be the movies that let him down rather than the other way around. I mean, could anyone have saved botch jobs like Chain Reaction and Johnny Mnemonic? And for all the flack he took for playing Prince Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Reeves may be the only contemporary actor who can look divinely enlightened upon demand, even if skeptics may interpret his expression as righteously wasted.
Either way, Reeves’s features will be a common sight in the coming months as TIFF Bell Lightbox presents Whoa—an 11-film retrospective named for the one-word catchphrase he first uttered in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Alas, Keanu devotees may be disappointed to note that the Lightbox series skips the stoner dimwits’ anarchic 1991 follow-up, as well as many of Reeves’s most courageous missteps, like his 1993 collaboration with Bertolucci.
Instead, it mostly sticks with the movies that play on TBS every weekend, like the endearingly gimmicky Speed (March 15) and the still-exhilarating first instalment in the increasingly terrible Matrix trilogy (March 22). Of these mega-hits, Keanu was never more Keanu than he was in director Kathryn Bigelow’s enjoyably berserk Point Break (Feb. 8), which interlaces its action heroics with what’s essentially a star-crossed romance between Reeves’s jock FBI agent and Patrick Swayze’s oddly Buddha-like surf-dude bank robber. Indeed, it’s interesting to note how much their dynamic evokes the fraught bromance that Reeves’s character shared with River Phoenix’s sleepy hustler in My Own Private Idaho (Feb. 22), albeit with more skydiving.
Sorely neglected upon its release in 2006, A Scanner Darkly (April 5) is the film in this retrospective that’s most deserving of reassessment. Richard Linklater’s despairing adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi allegory about drug addiction boasts Reeves’s most poignant performance to date. Playing an undercover narcotics agent who’s too addled to realize that the suspect he’s surveiling is himself, the actor looks more haggard than handsome, the boyish energy that was long part of his screen persona having been replaced by a deep and palpable anguish. It’s a performance that might’ve silenced the last of Reeves’s naysayers had they noticed it. The fact that it happened in an animated movie—albeit one that was initially shot as a live-action feature and then reconfigured with the same rotoscoping techniques that Linklater deployed in 2001’s Waking Life—was apparently enough to negate its relevance to that debate. And in case you had any doubt, the one-word answer to our central question is: “Awesome.”