Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise's '80s Revivals Are Coming!
by Richard Lawson
(just the Keanu content)
In 1989, Keanu Reeves did a brilliant double act. His big movie that year was, of course, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a surreal sci-fi history lesson (sort of) about two California burnout teens tumbling through time. Reeves played Ted (not that the distinction matters much), giving him a bobbing, affable airheadedness that could have defined Reeves’s whole movie-star profile had there not been, in the summer of 1989, Ron Howard’s Parenthood, in which Reeves had a supporting part as, well, a lovable dude-dope named Tod.
The roles were similar, but in Parenthood, Reeves was able to show a more thoughtful, even contemplative side, bringing shading to a stock character he seemed destined to play over and over. Smartly, Reeves pried that little bit of wiggle room into something wide enough to slip through. He would do a Bill & Ted sequel a couple of years later, but he also freed himself to take on a variety of projects, from action to drama to Shakespearean comedy.
Reeves had been doing varied work before Bill & Ted, but that role—which he’s reprising this year in Bill & Ted Face the Music, in which the lovable dopes, now fathers, must write a song to save the world—did briefly threaten to pigeonhole him. Reeves is craftier than that, though, more than he gets credit for. What followed Bill & Ted, and Parenthood, has been a fascinating olio of successes and genial failures. Reeves, though not possessed of expansive natural range, has proven a more adaptable movie star than many. Maybe that’s owed to the sly gleam of self-awareness he’s always projected in his work. He’s protected himself from outright embarrassment because he’s claimed that cringe already; he’s worn Ted and Tod proudly on his sleeve over the past three decades.
Think of his much-mocked performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a hilariously wrong bit of casting that has Reeves playing 19th-century Briton Jonathan Harker, trapped in Dracula’s castle and writing goopy letters home to his beloved (played by Winona Ryder, another emblem of the age). Reeves was lambasted for the performance, which might have turned another actor indignant, keeping him away from other projects outside of his ken. But not Reeves, who gamely showed up the next year in Kenneth Branagh’s delightful box office hit Much Ado About Nothing. Faced with playing a pouting, jealous villain who speaks in Elizabethan English, Reeves leaned more into his innate Keanu-ness than he’d been able to in Coppola’s film, and thus created a perfect, weird hybrid: a classical stage version of the prototypical Keanu Reeves character, albeit a dastardly one.
Reeves’s peripatetic interests didn’t always take him to good places in the 1990s. The most egregious example is certainly Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, in which Reeves, bronzed and bewigged, plays Siddhartha, founder of Buddhism. That hubristic folly probably should have derailed his career for a while, but then came Jan de Bont’s Speed the next year, a zooming wonderment of action filmmaking held at the center by Reeves’s gentle cowboy bravado. He’s aided immensely, of course, by Sandra Bullock in her star-making turn, the two of them giving daffy performances that somehow still take the material seriously.
That’s a skill that Reeves would bring, five years later, to his arguably most iconic role, Thomas A. Anderson/Neo in the Wachowskis’ seismic, industry-changing The Matrix. Between Speed and The Matrix, Reeves found himself a bit in the weeds. Among a handful of duds and forgettable, if fine, smaller films, the only real pre-Matrix standout is The Devil’s Advocate. A satanic legal thriller featuring Al Pacino at the height of his latter-career shtick, The Devil’s Advocate calls for Reeves to be boggled, and yet forceful, as Kevin Lomax, a hotshot young attorney gradually rising to fight a looming enemy (Pacino plays Satan, of course) that he’s only recently been made aware of. Reeves is quite good at communicating that awe hardening into a hero’s resolve.
Fitting, then, that The Matrix should ask him to do almost exactly that. Thomas Anderson is more of a blank than Kevin Lomax, though, better allowing for the audience to ride with him into a violent cyber awakening. The genius—and yes, I mean genius—of Reeves’s performance in the first Matrix film is that he so smoothly structures the journey from “Whoa” to “I know kung fu” to becoming the One. He adapts to the film as we in the audience do, a careful and crucial bit of stewardship that helps make the film such an immersive success.
The years after The Matrix were uneven for Reeves. It’s tough to follow a global phenomenon, especially when its sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, disappointed as much as they did. But, as ever, Reeves plugged away. He went after the devil again in 2005’s Constantine, a precursor to the age of the gritty comic book movie. In 2003, he gave a beguilingly sweet turn as a young doctor courting Diane Keaton in Nancy Meyers’s seminal romantic comedy, Something’s Gotta Give. (More of that, please, Keanu!) He did morose sci-fi, cop drama, even a strange time-skipping romance with his old Speed costar Bullock. (For all its goofy flaws, The Lake House remains eminently watchable.) He never really lost his charm, but he did lose some clout, perhaps best evidenced by the 2010-ish “Sad Keanu” meme.
Whether or not he was indeed sad at that moment, it would soon not matter, as John Wick arrived in 2014 to remind audiences what fun Keanu Reeves can be. A contract killer dragged out of retirement, John Wick doesn’t speak much, and he is mourning both a wife and a puppy. It could be a dour role, a sad sack angel of death. But Reeves gives Wick a fizz of wry, self-conscious humor. John Wick works because Keanu Reeves is playing him, a clever movie-star glow—one might call it soul—imbued into a stock character’s body.
That’s what Reeves does best, confronting the challenges of a role with a subtle, humane dexterity. Yes, he’s got the surfer-brah voice and the perpetually confused squint. But Reeves’s mind has always been turning these past 30 years, like he’s been figuring out how best to entertain us, calibrating his star presence here and there while still attending to personal curiosities. It hasn’t always worked, maybe. But he’s at least never been boring. Few actors of Reeves’s stature have been able to attempt so many genres with such consistently likable results. I can’t wait to see him in yet another something new. Even if, with his return to Ted, that means doing something old again.