The Hero We Need: Keanu Reeves is Demolishing All Our Dumb Stereotypes
by Marjorie Liu
I don’t have a Keanu story. Not that kind. But I have a story adjacent to Keanu, maybe the same kind of story a lot of us have, and it starts with a Paula Abdul music video from 1991. A boy meets girl story, barely complicated by the girl already having a boyfriend who is Not Keanu and therefore should just get out of the way and die. Which he does.
There I was, 12 or 13, watching this magnetic young man, and I remember thinking, “Why does he look so familiar?” Not his face, which I recognized from the first Bill & Ted film, but something deeper, resonating inside me in ways that had nothing to do with a music video crush (I had that, too, let’s be real).
This was the early 90s, before streaming, before the internet gave us YouTube, so I witnessed falling stars more often than I saw that video again, but suddenly it was 1994 and I was in a theatre watching Speed and I finally figured it out. What I’d recognized five years before and could not name.
Keanu wasn’t white. He was mixed-race. Part Asian. Just like me.
No one told me. But I had a little practice by then. I had radar. I had a hunger to find more of my kind, even if that was a secret I held close. And here was Keanu, large as life, and yes I’d had Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee and Nancy Kwan, but Keanu was a surprise. I’d made the great mistake that comes when your imagination becomes deformed from a lack of representation: I’d thought of Keanu as a white man because of the roles he inhabited. Roles no Asian American man or woman had performed in mainstream Hollywood, not in my living teen memory. He was the hero. He was the romantic lead. He was an undercover FBI agent. He was the gay street rat. By the time I was in college he was a washed-up football player. He was the son of the Devil. He was the One. He was everything. He was also part Chinese.
And that meant a lot to me.
There’s a moment in John Wick when the puppy peers from her crate for the first time and John looks at her after reading the note his wife left him, and his face crumples and the tears flow and he sags into the letter as if it’s all that’s holding him together, and it’s so pure a grief that each time I watch it my own losses prickle, and maybe I cry a little too or want to.
We know how it goes after that. The puppy is killed. John is unmoored. He seeks revenge. It’s a nasty business. Merciless, relentless. The bullets never stop, the dead keep piling up. And it is so very satisfying to watch.
There’s another moment, about 40 minutes in, when John enters the club in the basement of the Continental and the bartender (one of three women with a speaking role, and that includes the dead wife) says with affectionate concern: “I’ve never seen you like this. Vulnerable.”
When was the last time a male action hero, right before a hot-blooded murder spree, was called “vulnerable” by a woman? And can it actually be true? In the codes of performative masculinity, the vulnerable man is the feminized man. So is the crying man. Male tears in action films happen regularly, of course—typically over the violently murdered corpse of a dead woman or child—but those moments are quickly counterbalanced by an immediate hardening, a denial of grief. A repudiation of anything coded as “weak.”
John Wick, on the other hand, never stops grieving. Being denied his chance to grieve is what sends him off the deep end. His sorrow doesn’t end, but only grows, and so does his softness, his vulnerability; this man who stubbornly clings to life so that he can remember the woman he loved, and who loved him. And if it was just that, just emotions, it would be enough—but the character goes further. John Wick’s armor isn’t a six pack and tree-trunk arms. There’s no phallic stand-in. No muscle-head male friends.
No, when John Wick goes into battle, he fucking grooms. He wears a sleek, impeccably tailored suit. He fixes his hair. He goes full blue-steel. But not like James Bond, who we know is always on the prowl for sex, whose hegemonic masculinity is reinforced through encounters with young nubile women. And not like any other action hero, whose male friends are never almost all coded as queer.
John Wick is erotic, yes; he is sensual. And he is male, and he is something else.
John Wick, for all his warrior abilities and capacity for prodigious violence, is unabashedly, unreservedly, coded feminine. But not in the emasculated way that Asian men have historically been portrayed.
No, this is a masculinity of another sort.
It’s impossible to untangle the visceral pleasure of the character, John Wick—and the films, which are the medium through which he travels—without addressing first the visceral pleasure of Keanu Reeves.
He himself is his own medium, deconstructed by strangers, reconstructed by strangers, and for over three decades fans, critics, and journalists who know nothing about his delightfully private life have attempted to stabilize his identity, sexual and otherwise, through inference, projection, and speculation.
Exotic, mysterious, enigmatic, wooden, robotic, androgynous
Exotic, mysterious, enigmatic, wooden, robotic, androgynous. Words that have been used to describe Keanu—so often, for so many years, they’re the tired clichés of any discourse around him. But what’s not discussed in the mainstream is how these are also highly racialized descriptions, particularly around Asian Americans, and Asian masculinities. As a kid I might not have immediately racialized Keanu, but it’s never been a secret from the public. Far from it. And much smarter people than me have argued that his race has affected how critics understand him and his work.
(I mean, come on: is Keanu’s acting really more wooden than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s? Is he seriously more morose than Nicolas Cage? Are you telling me he’s more mysterious than Jared Leto? Get the fuck out of here.)
The tradition of marginalizing Asian masculinity is long and ruthlessly one-dimensional, often absurd, frequently grotesque, and far too colossal to capture in this limited space. Bruce Lee upended all of that, offering not only an alternative Asian masculinity, but an alternative masculinity, period. In his films we found a man of tremendous physicality and intelligence, supremely confident and competent; elegant, graceful, unquestionably moral and undeniably sexual (even though on screen he did not go looking for sex). Was there violence in his films? You bet. But it was purposeful, thoughtful, and in the pursuit of justice.
But keep in mind that until Bruce Lee’s wrecking ball emergence in the late 60s and 70s, Asian male characters in film were typically portrayed by white actors, and they were almost always untrustworthy, asexual (or, alternatively, lecherously hungry for white women), slight in stature, submissive—emasculated, in other words—and always secondary to the heroic and virile white man.
Nothing like Bruce Lee had been seen before, and though white hegemonic masculine norms have hung tough in the intervening years, he complicated the shit out of them and offered an alternate reality to Asian men and women—and other people of color.
Keanu is a similarly complicating force. Point Break, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and My Private Idaho came out in 1991—three more different movies one could hardly imagine. A ferocity of risk-taking that has not diminished even remotely in over three decades. And in each role Keanu disrupts our expectations of manhood. The disruption doesn’t necessarily come from the characters or how they’re written—it comes from him, in the way he wears their skins.
That slightly startled look on John Wick’s face when the bartender calls him vulnerable—the coiled, contained grief—is a masterpiece in subtlety. Keanu’s performance as John Wick is all subtlety, all stillness, all silence, his character expressed in the language of wry, well-worn certainty. He says little, but means what he says. And you know he means it. You know he keeps his word and does not lie. You know he’s thoughtful and in control, even when he’s at his most ferocious. You know he has a code.
Which is all terrifying and mesmerizing. Because to encounter a person like that, in film, is like beholding some old-fashioned idealized dream—not just of masculinity, but of personhood.
I might enjoy the mayhem of an old Bruce Willis or Schwarzenegger movie, but there’s never been anything about their characters, about any male character, that I aspired to (unlike, say, Brigitte Nielsen’s portrayal of Red Sonja or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley). There’s little that I resonate with in the typical action film, fun as they might be.
Not so with John Wick.
Bruce Lee, when he acted, didn’t entirely disappear inside his roles. Neither, I would argue, does Keanu. And that only makes John Wick feel more real and lived-in, more relatable as a person. Women love watching John Wick—and by extension, Keanu Reeves—because his masculinity doesn’t stride a hundred feet ahead of him. It doesn’t need to.
And that’s been the case with all the characters he’s played. As viewers we’re given a constancy of humanity that stretches from Scott Favor to Johnny Utah, Ted Logan to Jack Traven, to Neo and John Wick and all the others, heroes and villains. It’s a masculinity that’s sometimes queer, sometimes violent, often decent, just as often vulnerable and conflicted. It can’t be boxed.
And it’s not more powerful than the humanity of the characters, or the man who’s playing them.
Our belief in that humanity matters. Because the other pleasure of John Wick is born from one of the great popular American narratives, straight out of our settler-colonialist DNA.
The enabling narrative of vengeance.
An eye for an eye has always been attractive as a shortcut through the mammoth slowness of mourning and justice. All the bodies that John Wick puts down could just as easily be imagined as stations in the cross of his grief, as well as reconciliation to what he’s lost.
And what we all know, too, is that justice has been compromised. Hasn’t it always? Rich or poor, white or brown, women or men—there are different sets of justices, depending on who you are, where you are—who decides to love you, or hate you. Nor can the inhuman circuitry of our system be brought to court. Not now, not yet.
John Wick circumvents that. He has the skills, the connections. As Viggo Tarasov tells his son in the first film, “John is a man of focus, commitment, sheer will… [He] will come for you. And you will do nothing, because you can do nothing.”
There’s something deeply, viscerally, pleasurable in that surety of justice—something profoundly satisfying in having that justice administered by a character like John Wick, whose unstoppable violence is wrapped around a personhood that still manages to radiate decency and intelligence.
Nothing is perfect, of course. As a film, John Wick follows the oldest of tropes in using a dead woman to catapult a man to adventure (or in this case a puppy who is the avatar of the dead woman). It’s tired. It’s clichéd. If I had to drink every time I’ve seen it done in film, novels, and comics, I’d be in a grave. But it’s an evergreen, even if it’s exhausted, because it’s a trope that feeds both men and women; it satisfies a narrative we’re trained to desire. For the male and female viewer—queer and straight—getting rid of John’s wife fulfills the sexist function of freeing him from domesticity, which is the death of adventure (so I’m told); and for an extra perverse reading, the dead wife also makes it easier for viewers to recognize John as a loyal, loving man, and to fantasize a relationship with him (you know, after he’s done getting revenge).
John Wick, at least, offers up an action film where there’s no hint of sexual violence, only true love lost; a world that keeps peeling back its layers, revealing tantalizing hints of a baroque neo-medieval gothic underworld that is more feminine than masculine in its aesthetic, more urban fantasy than hard reality. If the High Table was created to fight the supernatural, it would hardly be a surprise; if John Wick, with all the beatings he takes, had a Nephilim for an ancestor, I wouldn’t bat an eye. What was the impossible task he performed to win his freedom in the name of love?
Was it to slay a dragon with nothing but his fists?
There’s a hypnotic appeal to this beautiful racially liminal figure, impeccably dressed, someone to whom true love happened, who moves through a mise-en-scène that is queer and gothic. Nor can I forget the “balletic” around Hong Kong films and The Matrix and how this, too, is in that tradition of poetic physicality. We’re not going to get the beautiful moves of Gene Kelly, or the grace of Bruce Lee, but we get Keanu—and watching him fight is as much a dance as anything.
John Wick, the character, regenerates my optimism. Keanu Reeves, who inhabits him, does the same.
There’s a reckoning happening around Keanu, around all the characters he plays—and around himself, too, as private as he should be. Like Bruce Lee, he’s another Asian American destabilizer to idealized masculinities and whiteness. He’s handsome, that’s true—but beyond looks he makes us question the deeper qualities of men, what’s attractive, what’s alpha, what we want to trust—what makes us feel safe.
Not desired, but safe.
Is it James Bond? Or John Wick?
A final note: a detour, but relevant.
A Walk in the Clouds
A Walk in the Cloudswas released a year after Speed—a historical romance set at the end of World War II, about a young soldier named Paul Sutton who’s returned home to California and is looking forward to settling down with his white wife—who more or less forgot about him while he was away. Events unfold, and Paul—who was given up for adoption as a child—ends up falling in love with a Mexican-American woman from a good family, and he becomes part of that family.
Keanu, of course, plays the role of Paul: quiet, earnest, decent, kind.
I was 17 by then, and while Paul’s race is never mentioned, in my head this film was—and still is—about a man given up by his mother for being mixed-race, who’s grown up a poor person of color in an America that has no place for him; that this is a movie about miscegenation, and about finding love amongst other people of color, making family with other people of color, coming home from the great solitude of being a mixed-race person in a country where that would have been something close to a crime.
All of which resonated with me in ways I could barely articulate, as a teen. But it helped me think about love. It helped me think about the love I wanted, which was not white love.
It’s a funny thing, reflecting on John Wick, on all the different incarnations of Keanu Reeves, and how important his many roles have been. We can judge them by the usual metrics—what’s a success, commercially and critically—but those don’t matter to me.
What’s so significant, what’s so lasting, is the gift of representation he’s given us through the medium he’s traveled through; a different masculinity, yes, but also the gift of being a person of color, of being an Asian American mixed-race man who, for over 30 years, has subverted the white landscape of film in ways that have been rarely acknowledged, or appreciated. Keanu is typically overlooked when it comes to any conversation around the history of Asian Americans in Hollywood, his impact whitewashed.
But maybe that’s begun to change. His recent appearance in the Netflix movie, Always Be My Maybe, playing a warped parody of himself as the romantic interest to Ali Wong’s character, is a pure delight. It serves two functions. First, it makes clear just how nice audiences believe Keanu to be in real life—not simply because of positive anecdotal encounters, but also (as discussed) for what he radiates in his varied roles. Were that not the case, his turn as a passive aggressive narcissist wouldn’t be so delicious, nor so universally embraced.
Second, it visibly and explicitly cements his identity as an Asian American. In an interview with People, Ali Wong states that “It was really important to me that all of [Sasha’s] love interests were Asian-American,” and in another interview with The Atlantic, she adds, “It [had to be] an Asian American icon who’s a great actor and who’s funny but also willing to make fun of himself… [Keanu] was flattered that we remembered he was Asian American.”
It matters that we remember. His Asian American identity mattered immensely to me when I was a teen, and it matters to me as an adult. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in strangers who are telling stories. Sometimes we need those strangers to reveal, through their person alone, possibilities that we haven’t yet imagined, possibilities that have nothing—or maybe everything—to do with fantastic narratives of action or science fiction, or romance.
Sometimes we need a Keanu.