Under-appreciated actors #2 Keanu Reeves
by Stuart Barr
I know, I know, I am such a lazy blogger. Here finally is the second in a very infrequent series on the great under appreciated actors of our time. Hopefully you enjoyed the previous entry which I posted in *cough* May 2012 *cough*. This entry is going to be more controversial, in fact I expect some of you will find it downright laughable. Well, to those of you I say, proceed no further, and go back to kicking puppies for fun for no-one with a heart cannot love the subject of under-appreciated actors blog number two. It is the perpetually youthful Peter Pan of our age, Mr Keanu Reeves.
You probably think I’m not serious. Maybe you think this is going to be like one of those articles in Vice Magazine, a profile of some wretched wannabe by some wretched wannabe inked with ironic venom? Some pathetic stream of snarky drivel designed to put a snotty grin on the faces of the sort of idiots who wear t-shirts that say “I used to care, but now I take a pill for that”. Well I say death to irony, irony can un-ironically fuck right off. I heart Keanu.
It would be insane to argue that Reeves is a great actor, he’s not, he’s something better. Reeves is a bonafide film star. The camera loves him, as it should, he has always been an extremely good looking man, and yet somehow one we would be happy to leave in the company of our girlfriends (or boyfriends). Keanu wouldn’t make a move. He’s just too nice. Like all great filmstars Keanu has a quality, difficult to define, that pulls people to him, that fascinates us. But what is it? It’s not exactly cool like McQueen, it isn’t urbane elegance like Clooney, or macho bombast like Schwarzenegger. Reeves isn’t a meta-star like I would argue Eastwood was, and Statham is, someone aware of their limitations who plays to their audience. In Statham’s case in a rather obvious take-your-shirt-off-and-roll-in-oil-way, in Eastwood’s a complex examination and subversion of image. Reeves seems blissfuly unaware he even has an image, wandering around like some sort of super-attractive younger version of the Dude from The Big Lebowski in downtime between roles.
What Reeves has, is a kind of zen blankness onto which the audience can project. Give him something technical and actorly to do, like say an accent. An Reeves stumbles all over himself.
“I know where the bastard lives”
This was never more apparent than in his awkward performance as Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, IMDB just calls it Dracula, but that’s how I remember it being billed). Having said that, he’s still better than the worlds most overrated gammon steak Sir Anthony Hopkins as a panto Van Helsing with a veery zuzpicious akscent.
However, throw a pitbull at his head as Katherine fucking Bigelow does in Point Break (1991) and Keanu is the man.
Keanu has always had detractors, in a 1994 interview with Movieline Magazine loathsome human flesh eating extraterrestrial reptile Charlie Sheen sneered “I mean, how does fucking Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, see Keanu Reeves’s work, see what we’ve all seen, and say, ‘That’s what I want in my movie’? How does Bertolucci see that and say, ‘That’s my guy’? Emilio and I sit around and just scratch our fucking heads, thinking, ‘How did this guy get in?’ I mean, what the fuck? How does Keanu work with Coppola and Bertolucci and I don’t get a shot at that, know what I’m saying?”
It’s not rocket science Charlie, people like Keanu. Do you see where I’m going with this Charlie? Do I need to continue? Good.
The love of the people for Keanu – part man, part adorable Andrex puppy – was never better expressed than by the bizarre ‘sad Keanu’ meme. ‘Sad Keanu’ was sparked off by a simple paparazzi picture of Keanu sitting on a bench eating a sandwich, and looking a bit, well, like he was thinking that he needed to do a load of washing when he got home but he really didn’t want to and it was kinda bumming him out. This picture kickstarted a global internet meme, there were websites, amusingly captioned pictures on Facebook, t shirts, mugs, mouse mats, etc, etc. The weird thing is, people seemed really concerned. This wasn’t some privileged, millionaire movie star, this was Keanu, our mate. Keanu touched the heart of millions with a moment of existential angst, he couldn’t be sad, not Keanu. It made you want to bake him cupcakes.
It’s time to look at his magnificent body of work. Here are a few personal favourites…
River’s Edge (1986)
Tim Hunter’s teen drama was an incendiary film in the eighties, that is unjustly forgotten. It still packs a punch now. A group of listless teenagers in a dead end town react with disturbing blankness to the sexual murder of one of their peers by her boyfriend. Reeves plays dim but nice metal head Matt and gave hope to a generation of spotty Metallica fans that a girl like Ione Skye might hang out with them. The film also contains one of my favourite line readings by Reeves, as he petulantly reacts to his mom’s live in boyfriends attempts to lay some knowledge on him with “The only reason you stay here is so you can fuck my mother and eat her food. MOTHERFUCKER. FOOD EATER.” Food eater is such a great insult.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1989 and 1991)
“Please welcome, the very excellent barbarian… MR. GENGHIS KAHN” Honestly what can you say, except these most excellent films bodaciously top Wayne’s World in my book. Wyld Stallyns 4eva dude!
Point Break (1991)
In ninety one the idea of Ted Theodore Logan playing an action man, especially one called Johnny Utah, was laughable. And Katherine fucking Bigelow’s so-macho-it-turned-the-format-inside-out-and-stuck-a-metatextual-finger-up-its-ass movie flopped on its original release. One of those movies that is clever pretending to be dumb, it was perhaps a little too successful. Now its majesty is justly recognised, and the film has been lovingly homaged in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Keanu’s second time out as an action star and he nails it. Speed remains one of the nineties finest examples of high concept, neatly summed up in the movie by top class psycho Dennis Hopper “Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?” An action star who appealed to women as much as men, Reeves also hit on dynamite chemistry with co-star Sandra Bullock. The film contains one of my action movie loving wife’s favorite kiss-off lines. Hopper sneers at Reeves “I’m smarter than you”, “yeah, well I’m taller”. Trust me, this is FANTASTIC in context. As a coda, suspicions were raised that Reeves may be smarter than we thought when he made himself absent form the godawful sequel.
The Matrix (1999)
Okay, try and imagine any other actor being as good in the role of saviour of mankind Neo as Reeves. You can’t can you?
The Gift (2000)
Not a great film, but Reeves is actually very good in Sam Raimi’s supernatural drama cast against type as a loathsome trailer-park dwelling abusive husband.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Another film that uses Reeve’s zen blankness to fantastic effect is Richard Linklater’s superb adaptation of one of Philip K Dick’s most disturbing novels. Reeve’s plays an undercover narcotics cop so freaked out he starts to investigate his own drug addict cover persona. Made utilising a complex and innovative rotoscoping technique where the actors become part of an animation, this is a complex, difficult, but absorbing arthouse sci-fi movie and to my mind the best screen adaptation of Dick’s work.
Side by Side (2012)
Reeves is currently in post production on his directorial debut, martial arts film Man of Tai Chi, here the actor produces and presents a documentary looking at the transition from 35mm photochemical film to digital as the primary medium for moviemaking. Reeves is an attentive interviewer allowing a range of A list filmmaking talent to give their views, but he also shows the sort of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject one would expect in an eighteen year old film student. It is a testament to how much affection there is for Reeves that the roll call of interviewees in the film is mind boggling, from Lynch, Scorsese, Fincher, the Wachowski’s, James Cameron, are just a few of the people to appear in a fascinating documentary.
Keanu Reeves is now 48, a step behind the camera is an obvious move. I won’t be the only one looking forward to Man of Tai Chi with fingers crossed that Reeves manages to make a film as fundamentally loveable as he is.
And yes, I’m not kidding.