Why we all still love Keanu Reeves
by Mark Dinning
He’s had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster but is back on a high as John Wick
John Wick, the besuited, beloved, box-office-bashing assassin, this week blasted his way back onto our screens in his most acclaimed instalment yet. He will, as is his wont, rampage stoically across your local multiplex, drawing in the droves with his unique blend of stylised gunplay, choreographed violence, pin-sharp tailoring and deadly enthusiasm for dogs (in his first outing, let’s not forget, Wick killed no less than 86 human beings to avenge the death of his puppy).
This is a character who has become so iconic in the five years since his arrival that Halle Berry personally called up his makers to insist on a part in his second sequel, before anyone had even bothered writing a script. And, to think, he very nearly never happened at all.
A career full of ups and downs
The tortuous birth of John Wick is, in microcosm, the story of its leading man’s entire career. No actor is immune to a flop, of course; it’s just that Keanu Reeves has had more ups and downs than a theme park. A testament to that, and a slice of classic Reeves counter-programming is, as he rides the success of John Wick, it’s in the wonky wake of his recent romantic comedy with old pal Winona Ryder. That film, Destination Wedding, is, according to The Guardian’s Cath Clarke, “so calamitously flat I had the disconcerting sensation I was watching the film dubbed in a foreign language, or for a spoofed internet meme.”
It’s that kind of quality control that nearly put a bullet in the back of John Wick’s head before he’d even stepped out of the gate. Reeves had become involved in 2012, a period when, still smarting from the last big movie he’d fronted, Christmas 2008’s box office bomb The Day The Earth Stood Still, he’d thrown himself into directing his martial art paean, Man Of Tai Chi.
Sensing something in it (like he does), Reeves took a pass then sent his rewrite to his Matrix stunt double, Chad Stahelski, and his friend David Leitch – both former kickboxers who had moved into movies and were looking for their directorial debut together. Between them and the writer who had dreamt the character up originally, Derek Kolstad, they worked up the story, upped the body count (tenfold) and got to work. Then Reeves’s 47 Ronin came out, and everything went wrong.
47 Ronin is the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Mainly because, if it did, it wouldn’t exist. A stylish but confused, dramatically inert and miraculously bloodless story of some samurai who avenge their master and then all ritually disembowel themselves, it came out, to the excitement of almost no-one, on Christmas Day 2013.
It lost somewhere north of $100 million (Dh367.2m); its director hasn’t made another movie since. For the John Wick team, about to screen their finished movie to the studios, the timing couldn’t have been worse. With its leading man having just delivered two festive turkeys on the bounce, everyone in town passed. Mr Wick was dead on arrival.
Yet we still love him anyway
Appropriately, given the material, Reeves would have his revenge when the movie was eventually released by Lionsgate, to an $89m return on a $20m budget. But even before that vindication, it’s hard to imagine he’d resigned himself to an early retirement. An extraordinarily durable performer of endless dichotomies, Reeves has made some truly clunking action blockbusters, but also some of the best of all time, such as Point Break, Speed and The Matrix. He’s delivered nuanced turns in left-field choices, including My Own Private Idaho, Constantine and A Scanner Darkly, but has also, in Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gifted the world an “English accent” so toe-curling it makes Dick Van Dyke look like Daniel Day-Lewis.
But there’s something about him that people – from fans to critics – simply can’t help but love. Of all the new movies announced this year, perhaps the one that got the most passionate traction, from serious industry sites to social media, was Bill & Ted Face The Music, in which Reeves’s Ted “Theodore” Logan will finally reteam with Alex Winter’s Bill S. Preston, a full 30 years after their Wild Stallions first hopped in that time-travelling phone booth. Excellent, indeed.
A man 'Brimming with heart and soul'
I first met Reeves in Baltimore in 1999, the same year The Matrix had blown the planet away. He was everything I wanted him to be – a man of few words but brimming with heart and soul. It was my first gig as a movie journalist, me flying out to meet him and his co-star, Gene Hackman, for their American football drama, The Replacements. Overjoyed at the assignment and nervously looking forward to – oh, the naivety! – maybe taking the pair out to dinner for our interview, I’d borrowed a wad of cash off my old man just in case and written five pages of questions.
As it turned out, I got a whole 10 minutes with Reeves, shared with 30 other journalists. Hackman clocked in at just under eight, and he spent five of those telling us all about the book he’d just written instead of the film we were there to write about. It didn’t matter in the end. The Replacements went straight to DVD.
Such is the way with Reeves, a man who sometimes has a tin ear when it comes to scripts and at others borderline-preternatural good taste. (Just ask Will Smith, who famously turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix and then had to watch from the aisles as Reeves made it fly.) Later this summer, he will voice the brilliantly named Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4, but for now, you can enjoy him in the role that reminded people – yet again – just what an accomplished action star he is.
The movie’s full title is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the suffix taken from the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum” – which translates to, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Maybe it’s a manifesto the man himself lives by; a reminder that nothing good ever came easy. Like his famed assassin, Reeves has taken more punches than most and still come out the other side swinging. He’s bruised, but better for it; stronger, cooler and more charismatic than ever before.
Long live Keanu Reeves.