Bankable Stoicism: The Box Office Power Of Keanu Reeves
by Travis Bean
As somebody who watches several movies a week, Keanu Reeves has been a big presence in my life as of late. I revisited Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in 12 years; I cried like a buffoon during the final minutes of Hardball; I popped in my Blu-ray for Point Break (which, no joke, I probably watch once a month?). And in honor of the third John Wick film, I burned through Keanu’s latest blockbuster series that has returned him to the spotlight.
Not every movie was great, but they all shared a common thread: I was completely enveloped by them. In fact, I had a blast watching them with my wife. We each found ourselves hypnotically drawn to Keanu and the weight he brings to a film.
And every time I realized how much I loved what Keanu brought to the screen, I had to reconcile with sad truth: most people believe he is a terrible actor.
...a terrible actor whose latest film, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, has earned $187 million at the box office.
For a long time I even sided with the naysayers. “Sure I love The Matrix and Speed and Point Break, but that isn’t really because of Keanu Reeves, right? He’s sort of barren, sterile, lifeless, isn’t he?”
Then, a couple years ago, I heard Bret Easton Ellis discuss Keanu on his podcast. And I realized I had been suppressing something I knew all along and was afraid to admit: Keanu isn’t an actor—he’s a movie star. And that’s why I find his films so powerful.
The quote that shook me to the core:
"The idea of a movie star as brilliant thespian is just ridiculous—they aren’t. That’s why they are movie stars and not working in the theater. Keanu always seemed to me as a throwback to John Wayne, to Clark Gable, to Gary Cooper. Even up to Robert Redford. He has an unusual beauty that the camera automatically loves and a stoicism that speaks volumes. He’s been working steadily with filmmakers who want to work with him for 30 years now...He has a strange presence that is very effective, a stillness, an awkwardness even that is usually empathic. He is always hypnotic to watch, and this is not connected to technique necessarily, but to what our most effective movie stars have, which is simply a presence, this indefinable thing that are we intrinsically drawn to. You don’t need to be a great actor to be a movie star."
Movies are my life. The actors and directors I’m drawn to are very important to my make-up. I connect with the films and artists most important to me because the art they create become a reflection of my self.
So excuse me if it sounds hyperbolic, but Bret’s words truly touched me because they made me realize I was hiding something true about my being. I’m not interested in the kind of acting adored by thespians educated in the art of stage—I want actors that drawn me into a world that I’m forced to navigate and become a part of. And few actors have been able to accomplish that like Keanu.
Which brings me to that figure again: $187 million. It was Keanu’s second-highest opening weekend of all time. By the end of its run, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum will have earned more than pretty much every non-Matrix movie Keanu has made over the past 30 years.
For an actor that many people consider to be “terrible” in relation to the Daniel Day-Lewises and Meryl Streeps of the world, he has continued and continued and continued to churn out movies people can’t wait to see. In pretty much every decade since the 80s, he’s been top-billed on a gigantically successful film. Hell, you probably didn’t even know that The Day the Earth Stood Still made a whopping $233 million—that’s the power of Keanu Reeves.
And I think it all goes back to Bret Easton Ellis’s assessment of Keanu’s acting. He’s mocked for his stoic demeanor, yet cherished for his virility. We poke fun at his grisly tone, but are unable to take our eyes off of him. We chuckle at the idea that John Wick kills to avenge his dead dog...and then bask in the bloody justice Keanu carries out.
If you look at Keanu’s top-grossing movies, they feature him in genre roles that benefit from his indomitable poise: Speed, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Constantine, Point Break, The Matrix trilogy—and, of course, all three John Wicks. A traditionally trained actor could easily bring thespian-esque weight to any of those films, but I’d bet serious money they couldn’t carry the gravitas of your John Waynes, your Clark Gables, your Gary Coopers.
Keanu is designed for these roles that require his gritty tone, his haunting stare, his statuesque disposition. As opposed to your traditionally adored actor who burns through a range of heightened emotions, Keanu’s power stirs beneath the surface. Because his first instinct isn’t to emote, there’s almost a sadness lurking underneath, an unwillingness to reveal himself. Then, when he does emote, it carries this profound, magnetic energy that is matched by few movie stars.
Going full circle, this brings us back to John Wick. From the get-go, the John Wick series—which has so far earned $448 million dollars at the box office—required the Keanu formula: he had to exhibit a hardened presence to mask the pain he felt after his wife passed. There’s an inescapable void in John’s life that is continually filled by fighting back. He is weak, but must always remain strong—or at least appear to remain strong. As each successive film beats John further and further into the ground, Keanu must in turn continue to heighten the gravitas that made him a movie star and made his films so successful.
So far, I’d say it’s working: John Wick earned $88.8 million; John Wick: Chapter Two netted $171.5 million; and in just two weeks John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum made $187.7 million.
I honestly wonder if John Wick would have been as successful starring anyone else. How many movie stars are there like Keanu these days? Maybe it’s time to stop judging actors based on the traditional signifiers of “good acting” and remember why we watch movies in the first place: to be enveloped by another world.
And there are few actors that envelop us like Keanu Reeves.