He's still the one: Why Keanu Reeves continues to thrive, 20 years after The Matrix
by Anne T. Donahue
On March 31, we celebrate one of the most important anniversaries in popular culture: The Matrix turns 20. And while the movie is a phenomenon unto itself, it's also a reminder for a younger generation of what brilliance Canada's own Keanu Reeves is capable of. Because for those of us who were a little too young (hi!) to see Point Break or Bill and Ted upon their release, The Matrix not just introduced us to an incredible actor, but to a person who's uniquely managed to claim a space in a landscape that's notoriously cutthroat.
Nothing gold shall stay, except Keanu. And for that we must be truly grateful.
Of course, in 1999, few of us had come to this conclusion yet — especially me. As a 14-year-old desperate for friends, I only watched The Matrix because my best pal had a crush on Keanu, so our afternoons and evenings were quickly chock-full of watching The Matrix or any Reeves vehicles that gave us a chance to imagine ourselves dating him. (Even though, for the record, I was far more obsessed with a guy at school who was much less cute or charming.) We were in awe of Keanu's seamless transition from action hero to romantic lead (Sweet November) to dramatic (The Devil's Advocate) to whatever was happening in The Devil's Advocate. And then, when we went back in time to revisit My Own Private Idaho and Point Break, we were confronted with Reeves's incredible ability to embrace vulnerability while grappling with the heteronormative, super-masculine norms his characters were expected to uphold and represent.
And while my friend and I began to obsess over Keanu less as we got older, we were by no means indicative of his general demand. Since the release of The Matrix, Reeves has appeared in over 20 films, and has also seemingly refused to pigeonhole himself into any type of role. I mean, hello: for every Matrix follow-up there was a Something's Gotta Give, and for every Lake House there was a The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Plus, there was John Wick — a movie about a man who avenges the death of his beloved dog by leaning into a most extreme set of skills. Because John Wick contains multitudes, and so does Keanu.
His film roles alone have consistently prioritized human experience over the myth of perfection, and his choice to take on romance, love and heartbreak as often as he does action or high-intensity drama are another testament to the fact that real heroes can be as soft as they are menacing.
- Anne T. Donahue
After all, there's a reason we all latched onto Sad Keanu™: on that fateful day in 2010, the paparazzi caught a man synonymous with strength and Speed lean into his most human self. He, like most of us have at one point in our lives, appeared to be miserably enjoying a sandwich. And while most of us lack his income and notoriety and general kindness (even when on a diverted flight), Reeves still manages to connect us all by giving us a mainline to his humanity. Because who among us hasn't been outside, wishing we were doing something else? Who hasn't sat on a bench, longing for a better meal? Who hasn't been outwardly unhappy, a daring act, in a world that prioritizes and commercializes happiness?
But Keanu has always explored and championed the complexity of being a person — and we don't need memes or viral moments to alert us to this. His film roles alone have consistently prioritized human experience over the myth of perfection, and his choice to take on romance, love and heartbreak as often as he does action or high-intensity drama are another testament to the fact that real heroes can be as soft as they are menacing. Who wouldn't have a crush on him? (I'm genuinely asking.)
This also explains his staying power. In addition to bridging the gap between any and all feelings, Reeves represents an often-overlooked generation (seriously, Generation X is brushed to the side with so much regularity it's quite concerning) while taking all aspects of self into a millennial space — specifically by maintaining a hold onto so many aspects of Gen-X culture: he was an action star, yes, but he delved into roles that were dark, grizzly and emotionally trying. He also played in a band called Dogstar (RIP), portrayed Hamlet to rave reviews in a 1995 Manitoba Theatre Centre production (which he reportedly chose to do instead of Speed 2), appeared in the peak-goth Dracula (where he may have married Winona Ryder in real life) and refused to elevate himself above his fans or the film community. At no point on his trajectory has Keanu fronted as though he's too good for anything or anyone. Which is why all newer incarnations of Keanu are so welcome.
And they will continue to be. In 1999, Reeves seemed to redefine his career with the release of The Matrix, but then he did it again in 2014 with the release of John Wick. So while his past plays such a crucial role in his present, it's been the choices he makes that continue to entice us and prove that we've never been wrong in investing our hearts and minds into Keanu Reeves's filmography — and that we'll never be wrong in championing it into the future.
(Although admittedly, yes, I'm a little embarrassed about all those nights binging Keanu movies back in ninth grade. Only I would make the mistake of focusing on an insufferable 14-year-old in a few of my classes than one of the greatest actors we've ever been graced with.)