Underappreciated Actors Reappraised: Keanu Reeves
by Hayley Inch and Stephanie Lai
We can all think of actors who aren’t as appreciated as they should be, whether they are consistently stuck in roles that are beneath their talent, their screen persona is chronically misunderstood, or they have become a cultural meme that obscures the true beauty of what they create on that flickering screen.
In our opinion there is no filmic presence like that of Keanu Reeves. He’s unique, a gift to us all. We live here within the Keanu-as-actor timeline, and we are lucky to do so — imagine if we lived in some other part of the Keanu timeline, when we couldn’t rewatch his movies over and over again. What follows are our recommendations of the key texts that will allow you to discover, understand, and more fully appreciate the joy that is Keanu. These aren’t necessarily all great films, or even his best performances, but they do get to the core of why he needs to be more appropriately considered as one of our most singular and treasured actors.
Remember, there are no small Keanus, only small movies.
BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)
This movie is a sad indictment of America’s education system, where children are threatened with expulsion with no warning and history presentations take place in front of the whole school. The propensity of Bill and Ted to mispronounce and misunderstand words, at first by accident and later intentionally, is utterly charming and reflects us all — who amongst us hasn’t mispronounced a word we’ve only previously ever read? We all of us have something to learn. Bill and Ted are our every people, reminding us that history has different interpretations and that puns are timeless.
Keanu Rating: When he appears to Joan of Arc in a beam of light, answering her prayers, truly, we are all Joan of Arc.
While one may be tempted to view Keanu’s role in Parenthood as an in-character pit stop between the two Bill & Ted films (there’s a lot of floppy hair and exclamations of “dude!”), the true glory of his Tod can be summed up in this one scene. Not only does he reassure Dianne Weiss that he has educated her son, Baby Joaquin Phoenix, on the topic that masturbation is nothing to be ashamed of, he then goes on to drop some serious truth bombs about sub-par fathers.
Keanu Rating: Staring into middle distance with a smile playing about your face while whispering “how could we not have foreseen what was to come, how were we so blind”.
POINT BREAK (1991)
This is it, the ultimate ride. The role that created and cemented so much of what the Keanu Reeves filmic presence represents. For the first time he is an above-the-title action hero, and if you are ever going to understand 1990s American cinema, you must understand Keanu during this decade.
’90s cinema is Keanu sass-talking Gary Busey, yet listening respectfully to Lori Petty as she begrudgingly teaches him to surf, unafraid to acknowledge a woman as the expert. It’s how he riffs on his own persona, drawling out “dudes” and “brahs” yet is razor-edge-focused on his pursuit of the surfer bandits, ever learning, ever evolving. And it’s in his charged interplay with Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, who seduces Keanu with talk of love and peace — but like most white men who appropriate Eastern philosophies, it’s all a smokescreen to behave like a dickhole.
We’re all chasing and trying to catch a Patrick Swayze in our own lives, the inspirational figures who have turned sour and corrupt yet we cannot bring ourselves to aim our guns anywhere but at the sky. And it will bring us all undone.
Keanu Rating: “100% Utah, good job!”
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
Ancient film lore has it that River Phoenix’s agent refused to send him the treatment for this film, so Keanu rode on his motorcycle from Canada to Florida to bring it to him in person, and if you aren’t on the floor from that information, we cannot help you.
At this point in his career, Keanu’s cynical, prodigal son hustler here is somewhat of a shock. It works, though. Keanu is so matter-of-fact, blunt but mostly true. He may only be on the streets as a rebellion against a world that he will return to as soon as he can control the wealth that comes with it, but he sees more clearly the lies and dead ends of hustling than anyone else, especially more than River and his shining innocent face. Poor River who is intensely feeling every feeling under the sun, and poor Keanu who doesn’t want to feel any feelings at all. They are beautiful and entwined and completely doomed, and when Keanu betrays River he does it with a selfishness that makes complete sense. That won’t stop us, or River, longing for that iciness to drop and for tenderness to creep through one last time. Please.
Keanu Rating: Everything in this is a GODDAMN MASTERPIECE why aren’t you watching it every day of your life.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)
There’s 20 years worth of spit and ridicule devoted to making you think Keanu is the worst thing in this movie, but it’s a fire trap of insidious lies. The thing about an actor like Keanu is that they are incapable of telling the audience falsehoods. The essence of a film is channelled through them, and we see its true heart. Keanu seems confused, out of step, out of time in this film because he, like us, knows that this film is the most bananas, out of control gothic shitshow to ever be committed to celluloid. He looks into our eyes, and cannot tell us that this film is anything but what it is. We are Keanu, he is the only means of escape.
Also according to Francis Ford Coppola on the DVD commentary, the marriage scene between Mina and Jonathan was an entire ceremony filmed at a real Greek Orthodox church in Los Angeles, with a real Orthodox minister, and no one realised until afterwards that Keanu and Winona Ryder had been MARRIED FOR REAL. [Ed. Note — WHAAAAT.] Do with that information what you will.
Keanu Rating: Anthony Hopkins was DRUNK all through this thing, you can’t convince us otherwise.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993)
Everyone yells in Ken Branagh’s Shakespeare. Everyone yells and is very British except for Denzel Washington, whose smile is the sun. And then there’s Keanu, all properly villainous, filled with scowls and scheming. It’s not a Keanu we are used to seeing, and again this is a case where a lot of people want you to think that Keanu is a bad actor in this film, that he has no right to be uttering the Bard’s words. Quite frankly though, it is not the words that matter here — what matters are Keanu’s silences. For a film where everyone is competing to be the loudest, biggest presence, Keanu says more with a barked laugh and a walk down a deserted corridor than some actors express in whole careers.
Keanu Rating: This is the closest you’re going to get to Keanu’s Hamlet, which actually happened on stage in Winnipeg in 1995. A theatre critic at the time described his performance: “He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen, for a simple reason: he is Hamlet.” We will NEVER recover from this.
This movie was a big deal, and rightly so: Keanu getting the job done but not giving a big speech about it, when other, lesser heroes would. His brutal honesty and refusing to give you false hope (he would never — he will always tell it just like it is).
And again, his embodiment of early ’90s American cinema, and ’90s action movies. From Keanu on, we are gifted with more than the oiled-up, muscular super soldiers saving us in hails of gunfire; instead, we have a clever young expert, an ordinary person who’s decent and terrified and brave and gets the job done with compassion.
Keanu Rating: After Keanu says “Relationships that start under intense circumstances rarely last” and Sandy says “We’ll have to base it on sex, then,” turn to each other with looks of delight and shriek “This movie is AMAZING.”
JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995)
A character yells across a dystopia at Keanu. “You Johnny? Sure hope so.” My friend, don’t we all.
In this dystopic future that once again uses Asia as the weapon of othering, Keanu reflects our modern apathy in a way we might not have expected from 1995. He asks, why should he help humanity if he’s dead? He yells about staying in his corner, looking after number one. This echoes back to the ’80s and the capitalism that has left us here in our actual techno future, five years before the movie’s 2021 setting, desperate not to be apathetic but full in our knowledge that our world has been doomed by our forebears.
Keanu Rating: With our changing world and a future that’s probably fucked, this movie was prescient in ways the UNBELIEVABLY TACKY VR couldn’t have predicted.
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997)
Kevin Lomax sits like a poorly fitted suit. It’s well-tailored, and sometimes the shirt underneath works; but it’s the suit on top you see, and it chafes against Keanu.
Keanu isn’t at his best here. He swaps between the smarmy, successful son of the Devil and the southern boy, and he’s unhappy about it. His ego is on show here in a way his other characters avoid; where his usual characters create room for others (often women) with respect, here it’s about Keanu. Keanu is at his best when he is true and straightforward and honest. A movie which puts him up against himself does us all a disservice.
Keanu Rating: He wants to be true, and this movie isn’t a truth. Watch for Charlize, and the moment when Keanu smiles in the courtroom’s bathroom, those first hints of the Devil’s smile, but know that this is a movie that doesn’t deserve Keanu.
THE MATRIX (1999)
What a glory! What a time! There’s no experience like that of watching Keanu for the first time, for the fiftieth time, in The Matrix. When Laurence Fishburne tells Keanu he is the one, when Carrie-Anne Moss tells Keanu he’s the one, we know it in our guts and in our hearts. Keanu IS the one, and for many people, this movie is the moment when they knew it.
The Matrix is not merely a vehicle for our love of Keanu. It’s a love letter to us from two amazing women, a lesson imparted to remind us of the shackles imposed upon us by the patriarchy and also that white men can’t be trusted (nearly 20 years later and Cypher’s betrayal is a wound that has never healed).
Keanu Rating: This rating applies ONLY for The Matrix. We have chosen not to include its sequels because it cheapens the gifts Keanu has brought us. Devote all your time to The Matrix.
Keanu as John Constantine is steady, and implacable. When he holds Rachel Weisz under the water to help her become who she has asked to become, his arm is firm and his face is stern and he’s just a little annoyed when she tries to breathe and undo all the good work she has done. He’s doing what’s necessary! He just wants to do what is best for us all.
Keanu says, with his actions alone: take just as much shit as you need in this world — no less, and definitely no more. Listen to Satan’s shit to get what you need, but definitely flip the bird at Satan as you ascend into Heaven. Honourable mentions to biracial baby Keanu, and to Tilda Swinton, who isn’t wrong.
Keanu Rating: No, it’s not the comic book, but Keanu made Constantine his own and is worth every ridiculous minute.
THE LAKE HOUSE (2006)
It’s a sad indictment on Hollywood that there aren’t more films that are unrepentant tear-jerkers featuring Keanu as a romantic lead, but at least we have this, a monument not only to his suitability as a swoonworthy object, but also a reminder of his epic chemistry with Sandra Bullock. A magic mailbox unites Sandy and Keanu who have been cruelly separated by time and space. It’s all ridiculous, especially the thought of anyone communicating by letters anymore. But there’s Keanu rebelling against his family of architects and a dog shared across the space/time continuum, and Keanu plants trees for Sandy to find in the future and emotionally it is EVER SO MUCH.
Keanu Rating: By the time Sandy and Keanu are finally in the same timeline and she says to him “You waited”, and he scoops her up into the fevered kiss that shames all other end-of-romantic-film kisses into DUST, you’re gasping and ugly crying and willing to forgive this film everything, even the fact that in this epoch-defining final scene it chose to outfit Keanu in the most terrible turtleneck imaginable.
A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)
Keanu is introduced to us as an everyman, and this movie tells us true: we’re all Keanu. When he is despairing at the pointlessness of his life and his job and the war against Substance D, his despair is our despair. When he wants to strangle Robert Downey, Jr. for being RDJ, we also want to leap forward and murder RDJ. And his weariness at the end, when he has nothing left but rehab and the mysterious plant he’s harvesting in his drug-addled state (SPOILERS: it’s Substance D, Winona PLAYED HIM, this movie is A LOT), is our weariness. We’re just happy the movie is over, because it was intense and there were a lot of drugs and friends lost and Keanu’s bafflement and displacement is our own.
Keanu Rating: What if Keanu and Winona had stayed married after Bram Stoker’s Dracula? WHAT A WORLD. Keanu and Winona are totally great, but the animation means that when Keanu’s shirtless we can’t appreciate it. A+ great dystopic future, but now we’re a little queasy.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008)
Keanu himself is anti-remake; but there was something about this movie that drew him to it, and it was this: it is a blessing upon us that we can witness Keanu as alien. Alien Keanu is the perfection our hearts have cried out for; the film itself is terrible, but Alien Keanu is everything humanity needs yet doesn’t deserve.
He is here to judge us and he has found us wanting; but in his final moments, Keanu has found something in us to love after all, even though all he wants is what’s best for us and all we do is betray him and let Kathy Bates shoot missiles at him. He just wants us to protect the earth and refrain from killing it, even though he knows we can’t help ourselves!
Keanu Rating: Keanu’s perfect, from the snow in his beard to the bullet scar on his bare chest. Keanu is waiting for us to find him and realise our full potential, just as he waited in the station for Jennifer Connolly to find him and help him understand. The film is terrible, but you must see it. It has left our hearts full of nothing but love and grace.
47 RONIN (2013)
After decades playing characters with worryingly caucasian-sounding names often involving variations of ‘John’, it’s a relief to get to 47 Ronin and see Keanu play a character that is explicitly mixed race, as he himself is. Less fun is the fact he spends most of the film being called ‘Half-Breed’ and told he can’t be a samurai then getting beaten up while living in a dirt hovel. Did we need a Hollywood version of 47 Ronin that plays merry nonsense with the original story, adding in dragons and demons and Rinko Kikuchi as a fox witch and a part for a Western actor that means the rest of the cast, who are entirely Japanese, have to speak in English? No, we did not. Is it still, despite so much WTFuckery, ridiculously enjoyable, and do we cry when Keanu tells the samurai’s daughter that in a thousand worlds, in ten thousand lifetimes, he will always be looking for her? Yes, we do.
Keanu Rating: This is the true magic of Keanu, that something can be so wrong you spend the whole time yelling “How was this ALLOWED” and then you watch it over and over with heedless glee.
JOHN WICK (2014)
John Wick is a glorious return to pure Keanu, completely unsullied by any of the random (but excellent) business that happened after he left Sandy in The Lake House. He is an action hero (for the role he learnt forms he hadn’t learnt before, and was directed by former stunt doubles he worked with on The Matrix) who speaks Russian and uses a pickaxe to remove his weapons from the concrete foundation of the house he built when he retired, and people still in the game call him Baba Yaga.
All of this movie is the most Keanu, but the scene with the cop and the deadpan “You working again?” is the mostest Keanu.
Keanu Rating: Bring on John Wick 2: Electric Keanu. Welcome back, sir. WELCOME BACK.