Sometime in the 1990s – thanks to some goofball early roles, a few wobbly performances and the occasional taciturn interview – critics and journalists seemed to latch onto the idea that Keanu Reeves was not very bright. Pretty, to be sure, but a vapid airhead nonetheless. In Entertainment Weekly’s review of Speed, Owen Gleiberman described Reeves as “a guy happily stoned on his overtaxed brain cells”. To Monique Roffey, in her 1994 Independent piece, Reeves was “a handsome surf blockhead who got lucky.” Two years later, The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick reasoned that “whatever Keanu might lack in intellectual ability, he more than makes up for with sheer willpower.” Endlessly self-deprecating, Reeves has even described himself as a “meathead”.
Yet, ask anyone who’s worked with the actor over the past 30 years and you get a rather different image. They’ll speak of his kindness, his shyness, his incomparable work ethic, his understated intelligence – and, crucially, his overall reticence to flaunt any of these qualities publicly. Gus Van Sant? Keanu is “extremely well-read, but… doesn’t think he is.” Rachel Weisz? “He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met”. Robert Downey Jr.? “You can tell he’s the most well-read and self-educated of all of us.” There’s a fascinating disconnect between Reeves’ public and private personas, hinting at something else beneath the slightly goofy exterior.
Reeves found success with his first notable role, in 1986 indie crime flick River’s Edge. Building an enviable (literally, for Charlie Sheen) early career, Reeves had worked with Stephen Frears, Gus Van Sant, Bernardo Bertolucci, Kenneth Branagh, and Francis Ford Coppola all before the age of 30. Admittedly these produced mixed successes, especially with Coppola. Reeves famously struggled with the English accent required to play solicitor/Victorian wet blanket Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s an uneven performance, the accent veering wildly and often eliciting giggles from the audience (“I know where the bahstad sleeps!”). But in all honesty, “delivers a bad performance with a wobbly accent” is a charge that can also be levied at co-stars Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and even Sir Anthony Hopkins. Reeves is just one of a parade of bad performances in Francis Ford Coppola’s visually stunning but flawed film, and it’s largely down to a serious case of miscasting.
Soon enough, Reeves would find his groove, and unsurprisingly it wasn’t in period drama. Throughout the 1990s, Reeves made a series of action movies. Some were good (Point Break, the one that kicked it all off and showed that Keanu Can Do Action Now). Some were silly (Johnny Mnemonic, a film about cybernetic brain implants tailormade to generate a dozen wisecracks about Airhead Keanu and Brain Transplants). One of them was excellent. Taking cues from Die Hard’s John McClane, Speed director Jan deBont sought to bring a different kind of action hero to the screen. Alongside the physics-defying stunts (can buses really jump like that?) and silly one-liners (“Yeah? Well I’m taller.”), Reeves’ LAPD cop Jack Traven exhibits the kind of openly emotional vulnerability not commonly found in the ultra-masculine action movies of the period. Sharing an inimitable chemistry with co-star Sandra Bullock, there’s more romance and tenderness to be found in this movie about a bomb on a bus than in The Lake House, the literal romcom Reeves and Bullock would make a decade later. Iconic as it is, however, it would be another five years, before the action movie that would define Reeves’ career would hit screens.
Written and directed by the Wachowskis, The Matrix is, of course, the quintessential Keanu role. 20 years on it seems unfathomable that anyone else was considered for Neo, but Reeves beat out the likes of Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, and Will Smith for the part. “We knew it would take a maniacal commitment from someone,” Lana Wachowski explained, “and Keanu was our maniac”. Reeves would go on to bring that essential ‘maniacal commitment’ in spades. He trained ferociously for four months to learn the requisite fight choreography for the film’s groundbreaking action sequences – all while healing from serious neck surgery, even requesting training on his days off. It’s a dedication that shines through onscreen.
The Matrix would prove to be immensely important to Reeves’ career – and not just because it earned him a metric tonne of cash. Rather, it sowed the seeds for two fascinating future collaborations. The first, with fight choreographer Tiger Chen, was Reeves’ 2013 directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, an ambitious martial arts flick which received a respectable reception and proved Reeves’ mettle behind the camera. The second? His stunt double for the film, Chad Stahelski, would go on to direct the John Wick trilogy.
After a string of fairly middling films culminating in 2013’s regrettable 47 Ronin (which bombed spectacularly and lost almost $100 million at the box office), John Wick represented a kind of much-needed Action Keanaissance for the star. The tale of a bereaved ex-assassin who’s dragged back into the life when gangsters murder his puppy, the film’s insanely creative and breathlessly executed fight sequences reminded audiences of its star’s erstwhile action pedigree. “People keep asking if I’m back,” Wick snarls midway through the film, “and I haven’t really had an answer. But yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” For fans of Reeves, who arguably hadn’t seen him in a truly classic action role since Neo bowed out a decade earlier, it was a thrilling statement of intent. John Wick took $88.8 million on its modest $30 million budget, sparking an enormously entertaining franchise and giving Reeves one of the most iconic roles of his career.
In a strange way, watching Reeves in the John Wick films feels a little like audiences flocking to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures in the 1930s. The plot and the acting in those were perfectly serviceable – charming, even – but almost negligible in their overall importance. What audiences were really after was the next beautifully choreographed song-and-dance number, sequences which were allowed to play out in long, unrushed takes to showcase their stars’ talent. Now, instead of a ‘Cheek to Cheek’ or ‘Never Gonna Dance’, it’s John Wick’s blistering fight sequences, still played out in those lengthy uninterrupted takes for maximum impact. The assassin world is fascinating, but we’re mostly here for Keanu engaging in gun-fu, car-fu and, come Parabellum, book-fu, horse-fu, and goons-on-motorbikes-with-swords-fu as well. It’s a franchise tailor-made for that famously relentless Reeves work ethic, evident in every flawlessly-executed set piece.
Going forward, 2019 looks to be another stellar year for Reeves. Parabellum swoops in later this month as the triumphant third (and, if it’s not too spoilerly to say, hopefully not the last) installment in the John Wick franchise. There’s a Pixar stint on the horizon too, as the brilliantly monikered stunt rider Duke Caboom (“the Canuck with all the luck”) in Toy Story 4. And most excitingly of all, the much-feted third Bill and Ted film has finally been greenlit. Reeves, like Mark Hamill and the late Leonard Nimoy, has in his later years made peace with the fact that this is probably going be one of his most-remembered roles, and his eagerness to return to the sweet idiot who made him famous is endearing.
In the end, we’d do well to remember what Kenneth Branagh once said about Keanu Reeves. No, not, “I’d pay to see Keanu Reeves in leather trousers and I think a lot of other people would as well” (a genuine, unabashedly thirsty quote from a knighted Shakespearean actor) – but rather: “He’s a brave, resilient actor who takes the knocks and plaudits with equal grace. As a result, he just gets better and better.” For Keanu, the best is yet to come.