Ready, Set, Whoa
by Kevin Scott
A new TIFF retrospective reflects on the career of actor Keanu Reeves. Here's what to expect.
Initially, TIFF’s decision to host a retrospective dedicated to the work of Keanu Reeves may seem like a curious one. After all, the actor has been the subject of some derision over the years, for everything from his notoriously uneven acting, to his limited on-screen vocabulary, to his habit of sometimes looking a little too morose.
But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Reeves, who spent many of his formative years in Toronto, is worthy of celebration. He has managed to carve out a filmography that includes a healthy mixture of crowd-pleasing blockbusters and interesting independent films. In advance of the retrospective, here are brief refreshers on three movies that helped define Keanu, and that made all of us say, “Whoa.”
River’s Edge (1986)
When it’s playing at the Lightbox: Friday, January 25, 9:45 p.m.
Role: Matt, a troubled teenager who runs with the wrong crowd, but who also has a conscience—and, perhaps, a heart of gold.
The story: A group of rural high-school outcasts deals with the aftermath of one its members murdering a classmate.
Mini-review: As a commentary on the callousness and apathy of disillusioned youth, it remains as prescient as ever. With great performances from an especially creepy Dennis Hopper and the mesmerizingly unhinged Crispin Glover, this bleak snapshot of eroding morality will linger in your thoughts long after the credits roll.
Place within Keanu’s career arc: It established Reeves’s enthusiasm for appearing in smaller films from less established filmmakers. This trend would continue with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), and all the way through to Mike Mills’s Thumbsucker (2005).
Does Keanu say “Whoa”? No. This was made in 3 BW (Before Whoa), when those glorious four letters were still only a glimmer in Keanu’s eye.
Choice Keanu moment: When his trashy mom insists that he not smoke pot in the house, he fires back with the zinger, “Don’t worry, it’s not yours.”
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
When it’s playing at the Lightbox: Friday, February 1, 9:00 p.m.
Role: Ted “Theodore” Logan, an underachieving metalhead who makes up in ambition what he lacks in intelligence. Ted is also, incidentally, one of the Two Great Ones. That’s because he helped form the band Wyld Stallyns, whose music is ultimately responsible for the formation of a utopian society in the distant future.
The story: Bill and Ted are tasked with travelling back in time in a specially outfitted phone booth. Their mission is to collect great figures from the past, like Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, thus ensuring that they pass a history class and are able to shape the world with their music.
Mini-review: It’s practically the Citizen Kane of dumb comedies, with many classic lines and great moments—not to mention a memorable appearance by the legendary George Carlin as Bill and Ted’s guide, Rufus.
Place within Keanu’s career arc: While his participation in it could have jeopardized his credibility, the movie’s success only burnished his silly side. To Keanu’s credit, he not only gamely reprised the role in the sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, but also still plans on doing so again to complete the trilogy.
Does Keanu say “Whoa”? Does he ever! In total, Keanu utters the trademark word a whopping 11 times, though it should be noted that some of these are whoa duets with Alex Winter’s Bill. Nonetheless, this is only enough to place the movie second among Keanu’s whoa-iest films. (It trails Sweet November‘s staggering 15, which is a little misleading considering all 15 are said in succession while urging someone to stop what they’re doing.) (Note: This whoa-counting data was taken from a post I made in 2009, with similar wording. - Ani)
Choice Keanu moment: As he offers the imposing emperor a snack, “You want a Twinkie, Genghis Khan?”
The Matrix (1999)
When it’s playing at the Lightbox: Friday, March 22, 9:00 p.m.
Role: Computer hacker Thomas Anderson, better known as Neo. Or, continuing the messianic theme of Bill and Ted, he may also be addressed as The One.
The story: Mr. Anderson learns that the world as we know it is really just a computer program. He becomes part of a battle against machines that have enslaved the human race. Or, something like that.
Mini-review: Though its legacy may be somewhat tainted by two sequels that were tepidly received by eager fans, the original was a kinetic hybrid of science fiction and action the likes of which no one had seen before. The bullet-time shootouts enthralled audiences, even as the labyrinthine intricacies of the plot threatened to confound them (before, in the sequels, they actually did).
Place within Keanu’s career arc: Having already cemented his status as an action star first with Point Break (1991) and later with Speed (1994), this became Keanu’s crowning achievement in the genre.
Does Keanu say “Whoa”? Only twice, but one of them is likely the defining whoa of his entire career. After watching Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus leap across to a distant building in a way that defies physics, Reeves drinks in the strangeness for a beat and then unleashes a delivery of his sacred syllable that shatters everything we ever thought we knew of the word.
Choice Keanu moment: When he downloads martial arts into his brain and then states, blankly, “I know kung fu.”