Whoa After Whoa: The Best of Keanu Reeves
by Sean Fennessey , Adam Nayman
A guide to the greatest actor of his generation who we don’t take seriously enough
I used to play a game where I would tell people that Keanu Reeves has been in more good movies than any other actor, and then pause significantly while they waited for me to qualify the statement. “Then any actor who what?” they would ask, at which point I would reply, “Nothing, just more good movies than any actor.” Whoa.
Such statements are, of course, a form of trolling, but like many other provocative theories, Keanu as human-quality-control filter is worth considering. Not because he hasn’t appeared in bad movies (Replicas, anybody?) but because he’s been such an integral part of so many that work so well. It’s one thing to pick and choose projects with the discernment of a Daniel Day-Lewis; it’s another to throw caution to the wind and still end up with a Hall of Fame batting average. Few careers are more suggestive of the shape and direction of mainstream cinema over the past 30 years, from the ’80s vogue for teen-centric productions (River’s Edge, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) to the indie-film boom of the early ’90s (My Own Private Idaho) and the 2000s proliferation of lavish graphic-novel adaptations (Constantine, A Scanner Darkly); along the way, he’s headlined a series of game-changing action films specifically keyed to his presence, even as it’s shifted over time, from a callow Gen-X hotshot (Point Break) to a paranoid, technophobic millennial (The Matrix) to a hardened, reluctant gunslinger (John Wick).
At this point, it’s no longer a signifier of esoteric taste to suggest that an actor once routinely pilloried by critics—he was mocked mercilessly in 1995 for decamping to Winnipeg to play Hamlet for a local theater company—is in fact skilled at what he does. There are all kinds of ways for somebody to be a good actor, and Keanu’s ability to embody the seemingly opposed qualities of stoicism and goofiness has made him an icon. But for all the well-deserved affection he’s cultivated over the years through a mixture of his earnest personality, money-where-his-heart-is philanthropy, and endearing weirdness (much of which is summarized in Alex Pappademas’s superlative recent GQ profile), there is still a tendency to focus on the persona more than the performances. 2019 has also yielded a bumper crop of primo Keanu content, from his commandeering stranded airline passengers on a road trip to the time when he solved the mystery of death for Stephen Colbert.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to triple down on our man’s intrinsic memeability not to box him in further but to showcase his underrated versatility. Our excellent adventure through his filmography has been subdivided into Sad Keanu, Rad Keanu, and Bad Keanu, and just know that even when he’s bad, he’s good. —Adam Nayman
SAD KEANU: River’s Edge
Directed by Tim Hunter, 1986
Nayman: Hunter’s downbeat drama has earned its cult reputation over the past 30 years (and got a full-on homage via the underrated 2017 drama Super Dark Times). Its disturbing portrait of generational alienation—of Northern California as a teenage wasteland strewn with detritus and barely buried bodies—is realized mostly through the work of its actors, including Keanu as the only member of a high school gang with the moral sense to report a murder committed by one of his friends. It’s a role that makes great use of the actor’s natural reticence; Reeves’s Matt knows that something bad has happened and he even has an idea about what to do with it, but he doesn’t have a strong enough personality to stand up for what he knows is right. Instead, he’s slouching toward redemption. The tragic slacker is an archetype that Reeves would occupy again in My Own Private Idaho, but he arguably never quite recaptured the purity of adolescent essence he had here—the approximation of a consciousness (and a conscience) in formation yet never quite coalescing into something solid.
RAD KEANU: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure / Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Directed by Stephen Herek, 1989; directed by Peter Hewitt, 1991
Nayman: Arriving at the end of a decade in which teenagers invaded multiplexes—onscreen and in the seats—Stephen Herek’s sci-fi comedy riffed on Back to the Future with two California wasteoids in place of preppy Michael J. Fox. The filmmakers auditioned everybody from Sean Penn and River Phoenix to the then-unknown Pauly Shore, but the choice to go with Keanu and Alex Winter was as world-historical as anything in the film’s time-traveling narrative; sweeter than Spicoli and less self-aware than their inheritors Wayne and Garth, the pair gave dumbassery a good name in both the original hit and its superior sequel (which contains, among other things, the best Bergman parody ever). Both leads are great and their performances feed off of each other; if Keanu’s Ted is at once a bit dimmer and more savant-like than his slightly craftier best pal, they’re traits geared to the star’s then-emerging strengths as a serene, beautiful doofus.
RAD KEANU: Point Break
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 1991
Fennessey: What’s in a name?
Some actors need mythology to make their mystery glow. In the case of Point Break, Reeves is greatly aided by possessing one of the great character names—Johnny Utah—in recent cinematic history. Reeves’s collegiate QB turned special agent going undercover to infiltrate a gang of big-wave-surfing bank robbers (what a premise!) lives and dies on whether we buy Utah as some sort of blank but upright moral center. Will he be tempted into a life of tasty waves and Swayze bonfire bonding? Or will he stick to his duty as a law enforcement agent? Reeves’s steeliness hadn’t quite been tested until Kathryn Bigelow’s majestic portrait of male bonding and daredevil thrill-seeking, but it laid the groundwork for an action career to come. Reeves’s stiff upper lip and still stare became trademarks of one side of his multifarious career. Few actors could sell honor-bound conflict like him; fewer still could throw a frozen rope across a sun-scorched beach.
SAD KEANU: My Own Private Idaho
Directed by Gus Van Sant, 1991
Fennessey: It seems odd the ways in which we underestimated or dismissed Keanu in the early days. Few actors could play the gullible goof like him, but Reeves had a deeper and often unexplored gift for connivers. In Van Sant’s intoxicating, mystifying reimagination of Shakespearean royal sagas as a gay street hustler drama, Reeves’s Scotty is yet another thrill-seeker who knows his past and controls his future. He’s the only character in the film of means, and the only one with a cynical view of his own life. It’s a tremendously confident performance, revealing an actor with a lot on his mind, often overlooked alongside River Phoenix’s searching, well-deep work. Bogus Journey, Point Break, and Idaho were all released in the same calendar year, a feat of versatility that I don’t think has been matched by an actor of his generation.
BAD KEANU: Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Nayman: “He’s the nicest person you’ll ever want to meet,” Coppola recalled of Keanu in a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly about the making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The context of the compliment is a bit less sweet: Coppola said that he felt bad about the bad reviews his star received for attempting an English accent, and even tried to take some of the blame: “I tried to get him to just relax with it and not do it so fastidiously. So maybe I wasn’t as critical of him, but that’s because I like him personally so much. To this day he’s a prince in my eyes.”
So yeah, casting a resplendently Gen-X actor as an avatar of Victorian-era aristocracy may have been a tactical error. As Coppola says, Keanu’s line readings reek of effort (“I think strange things which I dare not confess to my soul,” he frets in voice-over, sounding a bit like an English major who’s been called on to read poetry in class.) But one of Reeves’s great talents—deployed in varying ways in everything from My Own Private Idaho to Point Break to The Matrix—is the way he acts slow-dawning, mind-blowing moments of realization, and his palpable bewilderment upon encountering Gary Oldman’s mouldering, Camp-at-the-Met-Gala Count is actually quite effective. There’s an exciting unevenness to Coppola’s film, which is filled with examples of hysterical overacting (Anthony Hopkins, Tom Waits, and at times Oldman) as well as narcotized sleepiness (Winona Ryder never seems more than half-awake), and Reeves’s contributions to the overall tonal weirdness, however unintentional, are crucial.
RAD KEANU: Speed
Directed by Jan de Bont, 1994
Nayman: I’d like to think that Jack Traven, the hero of Speed, would have gotten along with Johnny Utah; they’re both supercops who discover previously untapped abilities to hold onto things hurtling through space at terminal velocity. De Bont’s surprise hit isn’t as viscerally thrilling or metaphysical as Point Break, but it’s a ’90s action landmark all the same. Along with True Lies, it feels like the last analog blockbuster before the digital takeover presaged by Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, and perfected five years later by The Matrix; its heavy-metal set pieces, dragged-across-concrete stunts, and emphasis on momentum are in an older daredevil tradition. What Keanu brings to the party, beyond his springy physicality and a close-cropped haircut designed to make us forget his trademark stoner floppiness, is an agitated deadpan à la Bruce Willis’s John McClane—naturally for a movie literally pitched as “Die Hard on a bus”—and the generosity to cede the best dialogue to Dennis Hopper (at the tail end of his Blue Velvet comeback) and Sandra Bullock, who leveraged her wisecracking-civilian-driver role into genuine stardom. Reeves does nail his one tasteless Schwarzenegger-style one-liner, uttered after his rival gets his head ripped off in a subway tunnel—if you’ve forgotten it, it’s worth rewatching the movie for on its own.
BAD (?) KEANU: The Devil’s Advocate
Directed by Taylor Hackford, 1997
Nayman: Some actors are natural-born shouters; others really have to be pushed to the edge before they even think of using their outside voice. As arguably the most soft-spoken megastar of his generation, Keanu doesn’t usually rant, but his freakout at the end of The Devil’s Advocate—a film whose title both is and is not a metaphor, since it’s actually about Satan putting an attorney on retainer—is an all-timer. “Maybe it was your time to lose,” says fallen angel John Milton (Al Pacino) to Reeves’s hotshot lawyer Kevin Lomax, who is not only his firm’s new hire but also [checks notes] (1) Old Scratch’s illegitimate son and (2) a pawn in his dad’s plan to bring a new Antichrist into Manhattan. “Lose? I don’t lose! I win! I win! I’m a lawyer, that’s my job, that’s what I do!” is the bug-eyed, vein-popping response.
The disparity in skill and stature between Pacino and Reeves in this scene and pretty much all the rest of Taylor Hackford’s gloriously trashy supernatural thriller—which runs nearly three hours—is evident. It’s also the point. Like Tom Cruise matching up with Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men or Paul Dano taking a crack at Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the contrast between a legendary veteran’s charisma and a comparative up-and-comer’s callowness is encoded in the characters and situation: Of course Al’s horny old devil mops the floor with the kid from Florida. Speaking of Cruise, that’s who I think Reeves is trying to channel here, which makes sense insofar as The Devil’s Advocate is basically The Firm with the demonic subtext literalized (mixed with Rosemary’s Baby, which is evoked in Charlize Theron’s pixie haircut and helpless hallucinations, and, well, Dracula, which is also about a lawyer summoned to visit a mysterious client). That he can’t quite channel Cruise’s unblemished heroism actually works for a film that’s styled as a fable about human frailty; Reeves loses the acting battle, but in this case, that’s his job—it’s what he does.
RAD KEANU: The Matrix
Directed by the Wachowskis, 1999
Fennessey: Or as I like to call it, when an actor leans into his harshest criticisms. For years, Reeves was dismissed as a dim bulb, an empty vessel, pumped for his handsome but blank energy. The Matrix literalizes that take in the form of Neo, a somnambulant computer programmer who is actually the messiah. The Matrix is a revolutionary film in myriad ways, but perhaps none more than its self-actualization of Reeves’s power as a performer, a physically gifted, spiritually curious, fearlessly earnest “chosen one” archetype. Reeves does everything well here—communicate ignorance, enlightenment, weakness, and strength. Rumors that the Wachowskis sought Will Smith for the role now seem ludicrous. There is only one whoa.
MAD KEANU: The Gift
Directed by Sam Raimi, 2000
Nayman: I’ve invented a stand-alone category for our man’s turn in Sam Raimi’s folk-gothic thriller, which boasted one of the early 2000s’ most killer casts—Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, as well as the always-awesome Kim Dickens and an Oz-era J.K. Simmons—yet basically gets stolen by Keanu in a rare and welcome villainous turn. Playing a short-tempered, physically abusive redneck suspected of murder, Reeves inhabits toxic masculinity with a fierce, surprising conviction. His work is the precursor to later evil dirtbag roles in The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch, which are simultaneously showier and less convincing; working with Raimi unlocked something genuinely unsettling in Keanu’s acting that hasn’t been matched since.
RAD KEANU: Something’s Gotta Give
Directed by Nancy Meyers, 2003
Nayman: When Something’s Gotta Give was released, Keanu was in the midst of revolving and reloading his Matrix persona—in other words, he was arguably the world’s biggest movie star, which renders his choice to take a supporting role in a glossy rom-com fascinating and savvy. As a romantic lead, Reeves can be stoic and inert (as in Sweet November), but as the charming, educated, and ridiculously attractive foil to Jack Nicholson’s dyspeptic record producer—they’re both vying for Diane Keaton’s neurotic playwright—he’s impressively on point. He’s got the sort of witty, relaxed presence that complements writer-director Nancy Meyers’s intricate but ultimately low-stakes comedic sensibility, and his enjoyment in his scenes with Jack is charming in a way that transcends the relationship between their characters. Watch him smile his way through the following exchange and see an actor having the time of his life without sacrificing the dynamics of the scene: Riffing on Freud, turtlenecks, and erectile dysfunction, he and Nicholson are both as good as it gets.
RAD KEANU: John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2
Directed by Chad Stahelski, 2014 and 2017
Fennessey: Watch Keanu Reeves’s reaction to the suggestion that he cares more about his dead puppy than the lives of innocents during this junket interview.
The man has a code! That’s all you need to know about Wick. He lives with honor and slays by the rules. It is the fitting intellectual denouement of a career that has been divergent and sometimes ill-shaped, but ultimately coherent. Keanu forever.