Is Keanu Reeves a good actor, and does it even matter?
by Cree Cullimore
What makes a good actor? A quick Google search will bring up countless qualities, personality traits and skills that, apparently, make up a good actor. Things like stage presence, the ability to memorise lines, understanding of dramatic techniques, charisma. Ultimately though, the answer is entirely subjective. Just as each actor’s skills and talents are entirely subjective. Some actors are widely – almost universally – lauded for their acting chops; Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Anthony Hopkins and Katherine Hepburn come to mind. However, one actor who is not widely praised for his acting is internet darling Keanu Reeves.
As much as we love Keanu Reeves, even his most ardent fans would admit that the 55-year old is no Laurence Olivier. Critiques of Reeves’ acting range from accusations that he’s ‘wooden and fake’ to the suggestion that, even in some of his better performances, his portrayals of characters like Neo and John Wick are ‘one-note’.
But for every article, listicle and Reddit post decrying Reeves is a flat, limited actor, there’s another applauding Reeves’ performances in blockbuster and cult hits such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix, and John Wick. Indeed, over the past 30 years, Keanu Reeves has accrued quite a few decent performances under his belt. While he may not have the range of, say, your average Shakespearean actor (see his cringe performance as Don John in Much Ado About Nothing), when Keanu Reeves hits on the perfect role, he can be entertaining, intriguing and, dare I say it, even good?
But does a few good roles make a good actor?
There is, of course, the argument that a good actor is simply one that audiences love to watch. It’s hard to deny that Keanu Reeves, with a 30+ year career and a net worth of $360 million, is an audience favourite (even if that audience is somewhat making fun of him).
Keanu Reeves, despite his three decade career and countless iconic films, remains a mystery to many of us. He’s intensely private, enigmatic, and occupies an ambiguous position in the collective mind of the public. Angelica Jade Bastien over at Vulture suggests that it is this ambiguity that has allowed Reeves to hop between such a wide range of roles successfully.
Many an actor has become irrevocably associated with a particular iconic character from their early career. How many of us look at talented actors such as Mark Hamill and Daniel Radcliffe and only see Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter? While none of Reeves’ roles have ever really come close to true icon status such as Skywalker and Potter, he has managed to move on from past roles and embody new ones.
From Ted to Johnny Utah, to Jack Traven to Constantine, to Neo to John Wick; Keanu Reeves isn’t associated with any one role more than the others. Reeves has shifted from role to role, apparently seamlessly. Perhaps this is due to a lack of any distinctive acting ability or style, or maybe due to an even more desirable trait: the ability to disappear into a character, without ego or pretension, or any uniquely-Keanu personality traits appearing in his performances.
Paul Henderon, in a 2017 GQ UK article, agrees: “When he hit the jackpot, we all win… he can carry a film effortlessly, sharing the limelight with his co-stars openly and without ego.” This utter lack of an ego, either on-screen or off, is perhaps the key in understanding Keanu Reeves’ longevity in Hollywood, when his wooden and stilted performances might otherwise have ended his career long ago.
In a time when social media and the demands of multi-billion dollar franchises force stars to be always ‘on’ and accessible, Reeves maintains an air of mystery reminiscent of Old Hollywood. Stars like William Holden, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando were enigmatic and vulnerable; audiences didn’t have 24/7 access to these men, nor even the expectation of it. The visibility of the stars were limited to their films, a few questionable tabloid articles in the event of a scandal.
Conversely, modern film fans are inundated with seemingly constant access to our favourite stars. Two of the arguably biggest stars of this decade are Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans; two actors who value privacy, yet Chris Hemsworth posts pictures of his (admittedly adorable) children frequently, and Chris Evans makes his political views clear (and proves why he is Captain America) every time he tweets about Donald Trump.
Can you imagine Marlon Brando being on Twitter? Or Cary Grant on Instagram?
These are the stars that Keanu Reeves seems to be emulating – our access to Reeves is limited to his films and a handful of articles sprinkled throughout the years pondering his mysterious existence and marvelling at his generosity and kindness.
Reeves’ aversion to stardom and intense privacy renders him as a blank slate, able to move between roles with ease. He has been able, throughout his career, to portray multiple iconic characters without ever being irrevocably linked to any one character. Unfortunately, Reeves’ acting ability (or, rather, lack thereof) means when he isn’t in the right role, his performance can be lacking.
But when the role is perfect, he is perfect. Whether that’s as John Wick, or Ted, or Neo. And despite the multiple criticisms he’s faced over his career, there is no denying that audiences and the internet love Keanu Reeves.