Keanu Reeves knows his way around a fight scene, whether he's using a sword or a shotgun
by Randall King
Keanu Reeves does not always get the respect he deserves.
Winnipeg theatre-goers may appreciate that opinion more than most. It was here Reeves demonstrated his spirit of thespian adventure by signing on to play Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in the dead of winter in 1995.
This came after Reeves had proven his box-office clout in Jan De Bont's 1994 thriller Speed, in which he played a cop in a death duel with a mad bomber played by Dennis Hopper.
Reeves has always had a maverick sensibility with respect to his acting career. Consider Point Break, the first major studio action movie directed by a woman. On paper, did The Matrix -- a weird mélange of speculative science fiction and anime-inspired action -- look like a can't-miss hit? How about A Scanner Darkly (2004), a rotoscoped animated film from Richard Linklater based on one of the more densely hallucinogenic stories by Philip K. Dick?
If you saw Reeves as the Danish prince, you may remember that he earned some unintentional laughs when he used the words "most excellent," hitherto a trademark of his character Ted Logan in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. But he also participated in some of the most impressive stage fights ever seen on the MTC stage.
The Beirut-born, Toronto-raised Reeves does action well. And if anyone is given to look down their noses at the contemporary action genre, Reeves will remind you that the Bard was not above livening up his plays with a bit of swordplay.
In Reeves' new film, John Wick, he plays a former assassin mourning his dead wife and pulled back into the killing game when some thugs steal his car and kill his dog.
Reeves says he abides by the notion that action equals character, whether playing Johnny Utah in Point Break or John Wick in John Wick.
"It's something that I look for, whether it's genre or science fiction or any story," he says on the phone from Toronto. "How is the character developed through the action? Bringing the audience into that is why I do as much as I can on the action front."
The gamble of Reeves doing John Wick was in his choice of directors. It was Reeves who took the script to David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two guys whose previous experience was designing action sequences for films such as The Wolverine and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles under the auspices of their company 87Eleven Action Design.
"I knew the guys and watched how they developed, starting off as stuntmen," Reeves says. (Stahelski was Reeves's stunt double on The Matrix.)
"For me, it didn't feel like they were making their first film. They came to John Wick with a real vision and I think that's what we see on the screen. I think it's a real fresh take and I think that's from their experience.
"I think the directors have brought together an interesting synthesis of cinema language, hard-boiled fiction, film noir and video games," Reeves continues. "I think everything is talking to each other right now and John Wick is a really interesting expression of that."
The shoot was punishing, he admits. Reeves, now 50, participates in some hard and heavy fight scenes.
"I didn't get hospital-hurt, but it was very physically demanding. And toward that end, I had this tub that would chill the water in my apartment in New York City while we were filming, so every night, I could go into 37 degree (Fahrenheit) water and just say, 'Ahhh,'" he says.
Call it the price of the esthetic gamble, if not the price of fame.
"I've always been interested in different genres and different kinds of characters and different ways of telling stories and I've been fortunate enough to be in different kinds of situations with artists who are connected with a vision," Reeves says.
"And so for me, when I meet someone who has that vision, I'll take the leap of faith. That just makes it a lot more interesting."