Where does one begin with Keanu Reeves? Recently endowed with an (un)healthy dose of the Nic Cage effect – that is, being caught on the slippery slope of diminishing returns – Keanu is now one of the most divisive A-list actors working in Hollywood today and yet, despite his more notable failures, he always seems to come back swinging. Just as he was at risk of being written off as a has-been, he snapped back with John Wick, happily reminding us all why we loved him in the first place. How careful must one be to so often tread that perilous tightrope between “complete legend” and “utter failure” with such startling consistency? After all, even Cage has that Oscar to fall back on. Just as with Nic Cage, Keanu has half a dozen misses for each of his hits, but when he hits, he hits hard; welcome to this introduction to the weird and wonderful career of Keanu Reeves.
“Way to go, dude.”
Few would need reminding that the above quotation is taken from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which Keanu stars as one half of the eponymous duo whose time-hopping antics see the endearing slackers encounter such figures as Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Sigmund “Call me Siggy” Freud, and Abraham Lincoln, among others, for the purpose of their history presentation. Often remembered as the film that announced Keanu to the world, Bill & Ted’s was a charming hit comedy that paved the way for a string of bigger roles for the burgeoning star. Now a cult favourite, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure remains great fun, but it was not, however, the Beirut-born actor’s first great role. That honour goes to a little-known teen drama called River’s Edge in 1986. Co-starring Back to the Future’s Crispin Glover, Say Anything’s Ione Skye, and a manic Dennis Hopper, River’s Edge tells the gloomy tale of a group of teens who must deal with the murder of a friend all the time knowing that the killer is amongst them; a dark but desperately gripping picture.
“Young, dumb, and full of cum.”
If there is a single year that perfectly captures Keanu’s considerable range it was 1991. It was the year that saw him reveal three distinct sides of his acting potential: he returned to the role that made him in the better-than-the-original sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey; he revealed his propensity for indie drama in Gus Van Sant’s excellent queer road movie My Own Private Idaho, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV; and, finally, young Keanu revealed his action-star credentials in Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic Point Break. Like many of Keanu’s early films, Bigelow’s adrenaline-fuelled heist-cum-surf flick has fostered a place in the realm of cult cinema and, while his character Johnny Utah’s qualifications as an FBI agent do require that the audience suspend their disbelief somewhat, there is no doubt that Bigelow knows how to stage a set-piece; the narratively ridiculous but cool-as-hell skydive remains one of the Oscar winner’s finest hours.
“Shoot the hostage.”
There is no escaping the irrefutable truth that poor Keanu is the weakest part of Francis Ford Coppola’s otherwise efficient goth-horror adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic Dracula; his accent is deplorable, he is utterly out of place, and it’s perhaps the best (read: worst) example of the actor not knowing his limits. That being said, Keanu was destined for bigger and better (read: more explosive) things. Somewhere in the world a pub debate is currently raging as to determine whether Point Break’s Johnny Utah, that bullet-dodging demi-God Neo, or Speed’s Jack Traven is the actor’s most memorable role. Indeed, in a previous Love Letter we noted that Speed is the perfect combination of “ridiculous” and “spectacular” and there really is no arguing with that. While the film’s success led to a series of unfortunate roles in late ’90s dross such as Johnny Mnemonic and the Morgan Freeman-starring Chain Reaction, Speed is nothing less than a high-octane thrill ride that will make you believe a ten-tonne bus can fly (like, really).
“There is no spoon?”
Released around the same time as that universal disappointment otherwise known as Star Wars Episode I (it’s hard to envy the weight currently resting on JJ Abram’s shoulders), The Matrix took the world by storm. While less profitable than Lucas’ intergalactic cock-up, the Wachowski’s sci-fi extravaganza has aged relatively well and remains, for an entire generation, an essential and enduring slice of ’90s action nostalgia. Front and central was Keanu’s brooding deity Neo, a character who did for shin-length leather jackets what Jar Jar Binks did for racial stereotypes.
The Nic Cage effect
Unfortunately for Keanu, The Matrix was at once the best and worst thing to happen to the star’s career for the large part of a decade. On the one hand, Neo is a truly unforgettable role that will probably stand as the actor’s most iconic; on the other, it led, with few exceptions, to what might be called the creative wasteland of Keanu’s career. The Matrix produced one better-than-you-remember and one God-awful sequel and was followed by a series of thankless, mediocre roles that saw Keanu’s once-tremendous star power crumble. These wilderness years saw Keanu release such turkeys as The Watcher, The Gift, Something’s Gotta Give, and, ugh, The Lake House. While his questionable comic adaptation of Constantine is not without its fans, it is generally regarded as a poor use of fantastic source material. Two notable exceptions rose from the realm of indie filmmaking: Mike Mills’ sensitive drama Thumbsucker, in which Keanu offers a thoughtful supporting performance; and Richard Linklater’s excellent if trippy animated drug thriller A Scanner Darkly. In 2013 Keanu finally released his long-touted directorial debut Man of Tai Chi to mixed reviews before ending the period with the inexplicably awful 47 Ronin. With this month’s action-packed John Wick just around the corner, however, it would appear that the star is back on top. Let’s just hope he stays there. Dude.
Often discredited as a one-note performer, Keanu Reeves, now 50, has seen it all: soaring highs and, of course, crashing lows. If John Wick proves to be the spark to reignite the dwindling embers of his once-colossal stardom, we can look forward to a new epoch in the actor’s career; let’s call it a Keanaissance…
Top 5 Keanu Reeves Films:
River’s Edge (1986): Alongside My Own Private Idaho (1991), this relatively forgotten, pitch-black thriller represents the height of Keanu’s early-career indie output. Well worth seeking out to see where it all began.
Point Break (1991): A cult favourite; Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break is as fun as it is ridiculous. Starring Keanu opposite ’80s icon Patrick Swayze, this remains a great example of ’90s action cinema.
Speed (1994): This two-time Oscar winner (yes, really) represents all that was great about ’90s action cinema; the influence it had on the films of Michael Bay is evident throughout.
The Matrix (1999): A film that needs no introduction. The Matrix was to ’90s sci-fi what Blade Runner was to the ’80s; a true original that still looks great.
A Scanner Darkly (2006): The Keanu-starring animated odyssey into substance addiction is perhaps director Richard Linklater’s most avant garde film to date; gloriously trippy, gorgeously designed, and altogether quite brilliant.