Stop Saying Keanu Reeves Is Making A Comeback — He Never Left
by Cameron Williams
Any actor on the downside of fame is one film away from a comeback. Think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man or Drew Barrymore in Scream; these roles led to major revivals.
So why did the McConaissance give us brain worms?
Since Matthew McConaughey went from career jail to an Academy Award, our obsession with second acts has grown more than ever.
If we get a hint of a resurgence, it’s a cause to celebrate; we only want the best for the creatives we admire. Yet we’re selective about how we decide what’s decent comeback material. Nic Cage appears in multiple films each year and appears to be around but never ‘back’.
Currently, as Billy Eichner would say: Keanu Reeves is having a moment.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parrabellum is a hit at the box office, he’s parodying himself in Netflix’s rom-com Always Be My Maybe, and provides the voice for Duke Ka-Boom in Toy Story 4.
Bill and Ted Face the Music is about to start shooting but I will remain extremely sceptical about this production until I am sitting in a cinema waiting for showtime. There’s even rumours Reeves is in talks to appear in Marvel’s The Eternals — the height of success for an actor in the new blockbuster landscape.
Reeves is back. There’s just one catch: he never left.
From ‘Woah’ To ‘No’
Keanu Reeves’ breakthrough years span the late 80s and early 90s with River’s Edge, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Parenthood, My Own Private Idaho and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Reeves considered major roles during this period such as the lead in Oliver Stone’s Platoon; a part he turned down that went to Charlie Sheen instead. Except for Point Break, Reeves was known for comedy and drama — he even dabbled in Shakespeare, too, with Much Ado About Nothing — but his career trajectory changed with Speed.
Jan de Bont’s (Twister) film about a bus rigged to explode gave Reeves top billing — and it was a huge hit. Speed certified Reeves as an action hero in the same way Die Hard made Bruce Willis a go-to hero. The film about the bus that couldn’t slow down became one of the highest earning films of 1994 and Fox wanted a sequel: here’s where things get tricky for Reeves.
After Speed, Reeves says ‘no’ to a few major roles.
Michael Mann was putting together an incredible cast for his crime drama Heat and wanted Reeves for the Chris Shiherlis role. Reeves turned down the offer and Val Kilmer got the part. Reeves goes on to appear in Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds and Chain Reaction; all three combined are never mentioned as much as Heat. Then de Bont and Sandra Bullock knock on Reeves’ door with the script for Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Reeves’ recalls the visit in an interview with The Telegraph: “[they said] ‘you’ve got to do this,’ and I said, ‘I read the script and I can’t. It’s called Speed, and it’s on a cruise ship’.” Next, it was the head of Fox who tried to convince Reeves to do the film with an offer of a $12 million pay day. Reeves recalls: “… I told him, ‘If I do this film, I will not come back up. You guys will send me to the bottom of the ocean and I will not make it back up again. I really felt like I was fighting for my life.”
Reeves didn’t return for Speed 2 and Fox decided to tank his career anyway by putting him on a blacklist for over a decade. Speed 2 is now infamous as one of the worst sequels ever made so Reeves was damned either way.
The Devil’s Advocate
The Devil’s Advocatewas next, but Reeves had to take a pay cut to stay employed so the producers could re-direct the funds to get Al Pacino to play the devil. Reeves worked steadily following the success of Speed but none of the films match its might.
Meanwhile, the Wachowskis were in trouble because they offered Will Smith the lead role in their next film, but he quit to make Wild Wild West. The Wachowskis needed to find their saviour for The Matrix.
The Matrixcame out of nowhere.
I can still remember my mother taking us to see it opening weekend and all we knew was that it was called The Matrix and the guy from Speed was the lead. There was minimal hype, no trailer breakdowns or endless theories about what this new science-fiction film might be about — it’s one of the last great films of the decade that kept its secrets safe.
The Wachowskis made The Matrix in Australia to keep the budget low, so Warner Brothers could invest in the experimental technology the duo required to create ‘bullet time’ and the stunning fight sequences.
During a Reddit AMA, Reeves explained how he got cast:
“I got a call from my agent, saying that these directors, the Wachowskis, wanted to meet, and they sent me the script, and the script was absolutely amazing, and I went in to meet with them, and they showed me some artwork, of their vision, and an early version of ‘bullet time’, and it was very exciting and inspiring, and we looked at each other, we ended up hanging out in a parking lot outside the offices just talking and riffing, and we basically just kinda shook hands — they told me they wanted me to train for four months prior to filming, and I got a big grin on my face and said: ‘Yes.’”
The Matrixput Reeves back in the league of Speed and it became a trilogy after the world went wild for the sci-fi epic.
Keanu Reeves Is An Action Star
Reeves thrives in action films because as an actor he’s so much better in motion.
We talk about how when Tom Cruise runs in movies it’s cinematic perfection, but the physicality Reeves brings to Point Break, Speed and The Matrix is transcendent. The Matrix trilogy held things together for Reeves but his career was rickety on the fringes due to Fox’s refusal to work with him.
Between Matrix films we get sports films like The Replacements and Hardball, light dramas like Sweet November and Something’s Gotta Give, and a brief appearance in Sam Rami’s thriller The Gift.
As comic book movies became popular following the success of Blade and X-Men, Reeves got in on the action with the under-appreciated Constantine, but it arrived right when superhero films were experiencing a dip in quality due to tired sequels (the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a few years away).
Now we’re in the weeds with Reeves and the low point comes where an attempt at a Speed reunion is made with The Lake House. I am being 100 percent sincere when I say this is a film where Reeves and Bullock share a romance via a magical letterbox — the mid-00s were insane for high-concept romance.
Reeves teams up with Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused) for the sci-fi thriller A Scanner Darkly (good) and Fox finally lifts their ban for a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (bad).
Then Reeves makes his directorial debut in 2013 with Man of Tai Chi, a martial arts film inspired by his experiences working with stunt people on The Matrix. Reeves plays Donaka Mark, a villainous figure with a deadpan catchphrase delivered magnificently: “you owe me a life!”
You need to see Man of Tai Chi.
In the same year, 47 Ronin gets released, a samurai fantasy film that spent years in production with a bloated budget of $175 million. Universal hoped 47 Ronin would be their Matrix moment with Reeves as the lead of a kung-fu epic. The film got slammed critically and performed so badly at the box office it almost caused a financial meltdown at Universal.
47 Roninis the kind of movie that decimates an actor’s career and it’s where most people think Reeves disappears, but he was only gone for a few months before suiting up to get back to work.
“Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!”
After putting Excel spreadsheets at Universal in the red, Reeves turns to his Matrix stunt double/stunt coordinator, Chad Stahelski, to help him figure out how to choreograph the action sequences for a film he’s developing called Scorn, that would later be retitled John Wick.
Reeves signed on to play the lead before the 47 Ronin fiasco and approached Stahelski for help while secretly hoping he’d sign on to direct.
The deal worked out and John Wick returned Reeves to action film prominence. John Wick also came with added ‘Keanu-ness’. Years of bouncing between random roles had us yearning to see Reeves return to arse kicking basics and his minimalist approach to stardom.
As Hadley Freeman noted in The Guardian: “the most famous paparazzi photo ever taken of Reeves was of him sitting alone on a bench, eating a sandwich out of a plastic bag.”
The major appeal of John Wick is its simplicity; man loses wife, man loses his dog and man must get revenge. Also, that man is the most feared assassin of all time who will kill you five times before you hit the ground!
John Wick is now a franchise with ‘chapter 4’ already on the way but Reeves consistently worked in the years between.
Reeves isn’t churning out a lot of direct to streaming junk like Nic Cage, but he did a lot of yelling in the trashy home invasion film, Knock Knock, and made short but memorable appearances in The Bad Batch, The Neon Demon and To The Bone.
Reeves also produced and narrated the excellent documentary, Side By Side, which examines the difference between shooting films digitally or on film (worth a watch to hear David Lynch say ‘Keanu’ like a 1950s robot).
The vital part of this phase of Reeves’ career is his dedication to working with emerging filmmakers, especially female directors. Yes, men are always overpraised for doing things they should be doing anyways, but contrast this with the fact that Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Will Smith, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Gosling have yet to work with female directors.
Reeves is like a housemate who is rarely around but makes brief, memorable appearances, and always pays their rent on time. Sometimes they throw a party!
Just because Reeves hasn’t been headlining blockbusters doesn’t mean he has been out of action. Reeves is an example of how our expectations around success in Hollywood have changed. Unless an actor is in a Star Wars or Marvel movie they’re practically a missing person to some people.
The momentum of Reeves’ career has shifted over the decades, sometimes it has been out of his control, but you can view each era with different levels of appreciation. We’re at a point where it’s fine for Keanu Reeves to play Keanu Reeves.
The moment we’re experiencing right now is the ‘The Keanuwave’, a culmination of everything we adore about Reeves and a celebration of his ability to endure. All I’ve got to say is woah.
You should go and see John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, or watch Always Be My Maybe on Netflix. https://junkee.com/keanu-reeves-comeback/208703