John Wick star Keanu Reeves is still an excellent adventure at the age of 50
by Peter Howell
Keanu Reeves turned 50 last month, but he doesn’t look it.
No, really. Even with a tiny bit of grey in his hair and beard, which goes nicely with his tailored charcoal suit, shirt and tie, he could easily pass for 30-something.
“Oh, go on!” he says, enjoying the compliment as he sits for an interview in Toronto, the city he called home as a child and teenager.
“Thank you, sir. Fifty is good. I’m still getting used to it. I’m glad to be here.”
The age talk isn’t just idle flattery.
It rattles the bean to think that the kid who played one of two time-travelling teen doofuses in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey(1991) is now more than old enough be the father of said doofuses.
It’s also a little tough to think of him as a “retired” hit man in John Wick, the payback action flick he’s come to town to talk up. He looks too young to be joining the profitable ranks of Taken’s Liam Neeson, 62, and The Equalizer’s Denzel Washington, turning 60 in December, who have struck gold with stories of cashiered heroes being recalled to action.
“You’ve mentioned two great actors,” Reeves says.
“I think it comes with the material, right?
“Both those gentlemen have had great characters to play and for me I’ve had a great opportunity with the character John Wick. So when you feel those things, feel what the characters feel, great production design, costumes, lighting ... it’s such a collaborative art form. But to be in that moment, well, it’s fun, right? Yeah!”
He sure looks like he’s having fun in John Wick, even if he rarely smiles. His character kicks the butts of a band of Russian baddies in New York, who foolishly mess with his wheels, his dog and his cherished memories.
But what is it about avenging heroes that seems to appeal to moviegoers so much, even if the blood threatens to drown everybody in the theatre?
“We’re always taking on injustice,” Reeves says, warming up to deliver a very thoughtful answer.
“My introduction to that idea was reading Joseph Campbell (author, The Hero with a Thousand Faces), talking about the hero journey. All the literature that we read has these singular connections, these one-person-fighting situations. All of our stories start with, ‘Once upon a time there was this person, this family, this place …’
“This acts as a nexus. It helps if you can identify with this character or characters, who usually are fighting against something or they’re seeking something.
“Maybe it’s part of our storytelling that we can identify with this, and also if there an efficiency to the mission, the search, the consequence, the quest.”
This doesn’t always work, as he found out to his disappointment with 47 Ronin, his big-budget samurai actioner based on a Japanese fable, made for both the Asian and North American markets, that spilled more red ink than blood last year. Variety called it a “disaster” and the trade mag was referring to box office, not genre type.
“It’s one of those movies that was just a dialogue between the filmmaker and the studio and they were a bit at odds at what movie they wanted to make and it took them a while to figure that out,” Reeves says, choosing his words carefully for a topic he’s not keen on.
“I like that movie. I think it’s a very brave movie for a studio to make. And for how it turned out, the reinvention of that story, I feel like we didn’t dishonour it. I thought we communicated that idea.”
He admits, though, that he’s excited about being back in his comfort zone: in a movie set and filmed in North America.
“Definitely there is something about doing an American movie, like an American action movie that I haven’t done in a while, with cars and guns. I’ve been doing kung fu and stuff like that, running and jumping. There is something to that.
“And filming in New York City — I love shooting there! I really like the movie, it’s a fun movie, the action’s great, there’s humour in it. There’s a lot that’s familiar about it; there’s a lot that feels fresh too.”
There was also the benefit of John Wick being directed by two close pals, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, stunt men turned filmmakers who have done a lot of work for Reeves over the years.
He gave them both expensive motorcycles as gifts for their work in The Matrix trilogy, as he did to all of his stunt crew, and he modestly gives them most of the credit for making John Wick happen, even though, as one of the film’s executive producers, he hired them for the gig.
“We have a history together. There’s shorthand and a trust that you don’t have when you first meet someone. They don’t feel like first-time directors to me and they had a great vision for John Wick.”
The two co-directors return the compliment in a separate interview.
“He doesn't have any flaws,” Leitch says of Reeves. “He’s just a really good person and a good human being. On top of that, as far as being professional, his work ethic is insane, his athletic ability and his acting prowess.”
“He’s a very honest and sincere performer,” adds Stahelski.
“He'll deny this, but a lot of what he brings on camera is actually him. He's hardworking, super ethical, a super loyal human being. A charismatic guy, very, very intelligent when you sit down to have a dinner conversation with him.
“He’s also got a certain degree of sadness, and an introspective vibe to him and he brings that across. When you watch him you're watching a real guy, you're not watching a guy play a guy.”
Reeves is also a very hopeful guy. He knows he has a potential hit on his hands with John Wick — it’s already big with critics, ranking more than 90 per cent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes — and he’s already interested in a sequel.
“I love playing the character and I know the writer had some ideas for the character, but we’ll see.”
He’s also willing to do something he’d long resisted: making a Bill & Ted 3 with Alex Winter, his old partner in crime. The stars and planets seem to have finally aligned, there’s a “really good” script and the green light is ready to flash.
I mention to him that some actors of his age and stature might balk at returning to the frolics of their youth.
“Oh yeah, right, I have to be serious!” Reeves says, with a sarcastic grin.
“But if there’s a reason for it, if there’s a good story to tell, I’m not afraid of that.”
One of the appeals for Reeves of doing Bill & Ted 3 is seeing how the characters are faring in their 50s. That’s one good thing about hitting the half-century mark — not that he looks it, though, you understand?