Why Keanu Reeves Is One Of Hollywood's Biggest Movie Stars
by Scott Mendelson
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Lionsgate has announced and slotted John Wick: Chapter Three. The third entry in the accidental franchise is now slated for May 17, 2019.
I’ve always said that the weekend before Memorial Day is among the very best on the calendar, offering the potential for a big opening and then a solid holiday hold. Yes, last summer had Alien: Covenant, which was the least leggy such offering in recent history, but the slot has seen the likes of all four Shrek movies, all three Star Wars prequels, The Matrix Reloaded and Mad Max: Fury Road. So, yeah, Lionsgate watched Star Wars 9 ditch the Memorial Day opening weekend and saw an opening.
If we argue that a franchise grows bigger in stature by virtue of its release dates, then John Wick has been promoted yet again. The first installment was a genuine buzzy sleeper in October 2014. So, the sequel got a more high-profile launching pad over this past President’s Day weekend. We’ll see if the franchise peaked at part II (like Scream or Pirates of the Caribbean) or whether it builds on the third shot (or potentially goes crazy like Goldfinger or Skyfall.
Maybe the answer is somewhere in-between, but John Wick is now the rarest of things, an explicitly star-driven franchise. The success of John Wick is very much about the ongoing and periodically regenerated star power of one Keanu Reeves. Mr. Reeves is arguably the most successful movie star of the modern age in terms of creating wholly original and sequel-friendly franchises.
Sure, we can talk about his famous philanthropy, his understated and often underappreciated acting, his “sad Keanu” memes, or the fact that he apparently drank from Tuck’s well in the early 1980s and thus will never age. But what’s most impressive is that Reeves’ stardom persists in this IP/franchise-driven era. The secret is that the reclusive and philosophical actor has made a habit of creating a new iconic cinematic character on an almost generational basis.
Depending on how old you are, you may have discovered Reeves in the late 1980s with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where he so exquisitely played a good-hearted airhead that said characterization stuck as a kind of offscreen typecasting for decades. Or maybe you first saw the actor in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, where overeager and exasperated FBI agent Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze’s guru surfer bank robber essentially invented the testosterone-fueled bromance. It wasn't a big hit, but it spawned a remake, a satirical stage play (Point Break Live) and a loose rip-off that spawned a rather fast and furious eight films-and counting franchise.
Or maybe you discovered (or rediscovered) Reeves via Jan De Bont’s action classic Speed, which turned his onscreen kamikaze airhead reputation on its head for what amounted to a cheerful, well-mannered action hero. The film was slightly ahead of its time in casting a somewhat unconventional actor as its muscular action lead. It was a new trend begun by Die Hard and Batman and made mainstream when Nicolas Cage cashed in on his Oscar win to make The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off in the mid-1990s.
Reeves’ blockbuster action hit, which turned Sandra Bullock into a leading lady, kept Reeves’ name in good graces as he dabbled in smaller films and quirkier projects like A Walk in the Clouds, Feeling Minnesota or The Devil’s Advocate. While Reeves has long specialized in understated dramatic turns (not unlike Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner), the Taylor Hackford religious melodrama/gonzo comic thriller, which gave us Charlize Theron, is a rare occasion where Keanu Reeves delivered a terrific over-acted performance. He held his own against a peak-ham Al Pacino.
But just as Reeves’ star was fading, he gave us a new iconic cinematic character for a new generation in the guise of Thomas Anderson. You may know him as Neo, but The Matrix was one of the most influential major studio releases of our time, and the Wachowskis’ mind-bending cyberpunk action trilogy became Reeves’ biggest grossers here and abroad. And whether they acted as a gateway drug for younger would-be Reeves fans or served to reignite the fandom born of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Point Break and Speed, The Matrix gave Reeves yet another defining and iconic cinematic character to call his own.
By the time the Matrix franchise wrapped up in late 2003, the industry was starting to do away with outright star vehicles, especially those not based upon prior source material. So, it’s no surprise that Reeves’ two big hits in the mid-to-late 2000s were Constantine (a loose adaptation of the DC Comics title Hellblazer) and The Day The Earth Stood Still (a remake of a classic 1950’s sci-fi drama). Both films earned around $230 million worldwide on budgets of $100m and $80m respectively. Fun fact: Until Wonder Woman, Constantine was the biggest DC Comics adaptation without Batman or Superman ever.
The post-Matrix 2000’s offered a few small-scale winners (I will defend Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s The Lake House, a moving meditation on adult loneliness, unto death) and worthwhile indie films (Thumbsucker, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, etc.), but the mainstream stuff (Street Kings, 47 Ronin) didn’t stick. Even the actor admits that the phone stopped ringing as much, although he did produce and narrate a terrific documentary (Side by Side) about digital video versus conventional film stock and direct the delightfully entertaining Man of Tai Chi.
And on paper, John Wick probably looked like a somewhat lower-rung, glorified VOD actioner better suited to Bruce Willis or Scott Adkins, a kind of “Oh, I guess Keanu Reeves is making a Taken knock-off” grindhouse offering. But the stylized and stylish actioner, starring Reeves as a retired hitman drawn back into the fray after Russian mobsters kill his newborn puppy, was a rarity. It was a genuine, under-the-radar sleeper hit.
The picture, directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, was picked up by Lionsgate less than three months prior to its eventual late-October 2014 release and turned into a genuine mainstream hit. Thanks to good reviews, strong buzz and a solid marketing campaign that treated the film as a generational coronation for the occasionally underappreciated movie star, the picture vastly overperformed its pre-release tracking estimates, opening with $14 million and legging it to $43m domestic and $88m worldwide on a $30m budget.
That’s not a king’s ransom, but the picture, which played off Reeves’ star persona as a Zen-like man of action (and the fact that he had been somewhat MIA from mainstream movies), became an instant genre favorite and would-be cult classic. It was a big post-theatrical hit and John Wick: Chapter Two opened this past February as a true breakout sequel with a $30 million debut weekend for an eventual $92m domestic and $171m worldwide gross on a $40m budget.
The John Wick franchise is rooted in the idea of seeing Keanu Reeves specifically as John Wick, specifically because of Reeves’ performance and how the character plays off his persona. And that applies to all his defining characters, from Ted to Neo to Wick. Plenty of actors have one or two iconic/defining cinematic characters to their credit. Reeves has at least four (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, The Matrix and John Wick) and possibly five (if you want to count Point Break’s Johnny Utah). Moreover, all of them stemmed from original screenplays sans any attachment to branded content or preexisting source material.
In 2017, Reeves is still around, still relevant, and still creating wholly original cinematic franchise-friendly characters. It would be like if Harrison Ford were still creating new characters as popular as Indiana Jones or Han Solo. Or, it would be like if Hell or High Water or Blackhat did even 25% of what Star Trek or Thor did at the domestic box office.
It is that ability (aside from the whole talent/charisma/professionalism/commitment stuff), to create new characters just often enough to snag new fans and reacquaint himself with older fans that keeps the actor exciting and bankable even in an IP/branded content world. Most actors are lucky to have one iconic character. Some, like Alan Rickman, get two. Keanu Reeves has at least four, all of which are wholly original cinematic creations.
Like Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves is still a movie star because he remains bigger than the property and can score big bucks and new fans absent any property at all. And unlike any of his peers, he has a knack for embodying wholly original characters that redefine (or reenergize) his stardom right when the wick is about to burn out. And in terms of starring in films that create sequel-friendly franchises, franchises that succeed specifically because Reeves is the star, he has no equal.