Why Keanu Reeves is Low-Key The Coolest Actor in Hollywood
As John Wick 2 hits theaters, it's time to reconsider the actor's legacy.
by Noah Johnson
A promotional poster for John Wick 2 shows the widower assassin in an expensive-looking black suit, holding a Glock, while being measured by a man in shirtsleeves, presumably his tailor. Wick is of course played by Keanu Reeves, who appears to have barely aged since his days as Point Break’s Johnny Utah a quarter century ago. His hair is jet black, long and parted dead-center, the way it is in all of his best roles. His beard is slightly more grown in, and his gaze a bit more focused, but otherwise he remains Hollywood’s best blank slate. The man who went from gay street hustler, to FBI agent, to time-traveling metalhead in a single year. Keanu’s unique ability to seem detached from his job as an actor—the same quality that makes some critics groan because they mistake the actor for the characters he plays—has made him a divisive figure. It’s also why he’s one of my favorite actors, and one of the all-time coolest. It's why History is going to treat Keanu Reeves very, very kindly.
And now for the “don’t @ me” part of the piece: I am well aware that Keanu has many deniers. That the chill-surfer-bro quality of his voice (WHOA!), or the way he sometimes moves his head (c'mon, you gotta flip the hair out of your face sometimes), makes it so that you just cannot take him seriously. Deadpan isn’t for everyone. But I’m making an argument for authenticity here. And I’m not alone in this. There’s a reason why directors like Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant cast him for heady roles. Why he turned down Speed 2 ("It's called Speed and it's on a cruise ship," he said) and Heat to play Hamlet for a Canadian theater company. And why a Village Voice critic said in a review of John Wick: "Reeves is wonderful here, a marvel of physicality and stern determination—he moves with the grace of an old-school swashbuckler.” A swashbuckler! But really, it's this old school aspect of Keanu that I respond to. He's a throwback to a time when actors were actors, not celebrities.
The year was 1991. Keanu’s three films—My Own Private Idaho, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Point Break—couldn’t be more different from each other in aesthetic or ambition, and they are all very, very good. Keanu is very, very good in all of them. In her New York Times review of Point Break, Janet Maslin said Keanu “displays considerable discipline and range.” That assessment holds up today, fifty some-odd films later. Deadpan and all, Keanu’s versatility and distant acting style are part of what make him so great to watch, and why some of his roles just ooze the kind of effortless cool that people associate with golden-age Hollywood types. It helps that we know almost nothing about his personal life. He's famously tight-lipped when it comes to family and relationships, and his mixed background (born in Beirut, raised in Toronto, of British, Portuguese, Hawaiian, and Chinese ancestry) makes generalizing about him impossible. He’s the mutt in the dog park that makes all the purebreds seem fussy and lame.
Keanu's ability to eliminate the boundary that separates himself from the character is part of what makes him interesting to watch. It’s also why he makes some people so uncomfortable. But I'd argue that's a decision he's made deliberately. Who hasn't read a great novel and mistaken the protagonist for the author? It takes skill. But it’s also what his detached swagger—his ineffable cool—is all about. He’s this ageless, unknowable, abstract sort of guy. He goes away for four months to learn Kung Fu. He's been in a bunch of motorcycle accidents. He plays bass in a band and sometimes rides the subway.
Gus Van Sant, who wrote and directed My Own Private Idaho, is a master of crafting unforgettable characters through careful unstyled styling. Keanu, along with co-star River Phoenix, couldn’t have been more perfect for their roles, and the result is one of the most stylish films ever made. The two take the Pacific Northwest’s famous grunge style to a timeless place. Keanu plays the son of the Mayor of Portland, killing time as a prostitute until he turns 21, inherits a family fortune, and goes straight. “I will change when everyone expects it the least,” he says. He wears black leather and brown sheepskin. Rides a motorcycle. The movie is a strange, Shakespearean, avant grade take on romantic comedy, but Keanu and River feel startlingly authentic.
Keanu has frequently benefitted from the high style IQs of his notable co-stars. My Own Private Idaho wouldn’t still resonate today without River Phoenix in his mechanic’s shirt and fleece-lined corduroy coat. And in Point Break, of course, Keanu comes with a side of Patrick Swayze, who plays Bodhi the bank-robbing soul surfer with an actual lion’s mane of mousse-commercial perfect hair. And in the Bill & Ted films, it’s William "Bill" S. Preston, Esq. who puts Keanu’s high school slacker style in sharp relief. The two represent perfectly the way suburban teens turn jeans, sweats, sneakers and flannels into a tribal uniform.
In real life, he’s shown a respectable commitment to wearing a blazer every time he leaves the house, but Keanu Reeves is no fashion icon. Even the blazer—often black, tailored but never fashionable—serves as a kind of disguise. It’s a cloak of anonymity. It saves him from having to develop a distinct style that defines him. (Remember: Johnny Depp didn’t do himself any favors when he went full pirate.) Keanu’s personal style is nuanced. Almost unknowable. He carries himself with the kind of natural unease—the low-level discomfort of being alive in the natural world—that fashion models strive to emanate. His acting is like that, too. Both familiar and unusual, with a reassuring tension. The tired adage says that to be cool is to never try too hard, but Keanu always seems to be trying just hard enough.