Why I'd like to be ... Keanu Reeves in Speed
He began the 90s with Bill and Ted's silliness and ended them with The Matrix's existential angst, but in between came Keanu Reeves's greatest role as Jack Traven, a taciturn, tough-guy cop who oozed charisma. Getting the job done never looked so cool
by Alex Hess
"Do not attempt to grow a brain," Dennis Hopper warns Keanu Reeves's tough-guy cop Jack Traven in Speed, and in doing so sums up a time in my life when the path to effortless cool seemed refreshingly simple. Before my cinematic idols went on to encompass fatally flawed heroes, silver-tongued ladykillers and anti-establishment mental patients, the recipe for coolness, as demonstrated by Keanu Reeves in the summer of '94, was blindingly obvious and ostensibly achievable: chew a lot of gum, do a lot of intense squinting, and – crucially – speak as few words as possible.
It's fair to say that my own attempts at replicating this formula while trooping around a school playground in north London probably brought less success than Reeves in Speed: in hindsight, a movie star's finely chiselled sheen may have also been a necessary part of his recipe. Likewise, the above blueprint is perhaps best practised to a background of exploding public transport vehicles and thwarted supervillains rather than suburban traffic jams and uninterested classmates.
But a boy can dream, and whenever Speed crops up on TV, as it often does, it's hard not to be swept back to a time when being Jack Traven was the simple but unattainable extent of a life's ambitions. On top of his obvious aesthetic appeal – good looks, biceps bulging through his Swat gear, the ability to remain absurdly casual while whipping a sports car around hairpin bends – he also planted the idea that a guy didn't need to be a smooth-talking extrovert to reach the pinnacle of cool, or indeed to provoke the advances of improbably attractive commuters at the end of a hard day's bomb disposal.
Unlike most of his peers, Traven didn't go about firing verbal take-downs in all directions while saving the world: John McClane he ain't. He was a doer rather than a talker, and so it was reassuring to discover that my own impulse for keeping social interaction to an absolute minimum was compatible with an action hero's smouldering charisma – though I should confess that, despite my wilful persistence with the former, the latter has remained maddeningly elusive.
"Do not attempt to grow a brain" could have also served as a tagline for one of the most magnificently brainless action films from what we can now see as a golden age for magnificently brainless action films. The mid-90s threw up, among others, Con Air, Face/Off, The Rock, Air Force One, Broken Arrow and Bad Boys: all mainstays of any adolescent boy's repertoire, and all with their own gun-toting screen icons.
But Speed stood out above the rest because, while all his peers were busy dispatching their bad guys with a knowingly raised eyebrow, Reeves played his hero as straight as a bullet. As someone who has always been averse to any trend that relies on a dosage of smug irony, it was his persona, rather than those of Cage or Travolta, that resonated most. While Bruce Willis flaunted the gift of the gab, Reeves showed little interest in chitchat and was all the better for it. Traven's capacity to get his job done with a minimum of unfunny asides and forced repartees is something that appeals to anyone who covets the misanthrope's life but comes up short in his particular brand of workplace self-assurance.
Hopper's advice wasn't heeded, though. Reeves soon did attempt to grow a brain, and in doing so cashed in his status as my personal demigod. The Matrix may have been a blockbusting, era-defining success, it may have reshaped the action genre's landscape for the millennial generation, it may even have elevated Reeves to the zenith of his leather-trousered stardom – but Neo, with his computer geekery, multiple realities and half-finished Baudrillard textbooks, was an action hero with A-levels. And no schoolkid actually wanted A-levels.
Jack Traven, on the other hand, was the glorious lovechild of Reeves's two breakout roles: Bill and Ted's endearing simpleton and Point Break's gung-ho lawman. His appeal lay in his pointed lack of adornment, be it of his intellect, wardrobe or anything else. With Neo's metaphysical dilemmas and sweeping trenchcoats, Reeves had complicated his own simple formula. Chew gum, squint, keep quiet and demonstrate a detailed understanding of existential philosophy? That wasn't what I'd signed up for.
It was inevitable though, I guess. After all, we're all forced to grow brains in the end. But even so, Speed-era Keanu Reeves lives on as an enduring reminder that reverting back to the good old days remains one of life's simple pleasures.