Why this might not seem so easy
A sexy oddball; an action hero with a heart of gold; a goofy guy who can recite Shakespeare in the middle of a conversation – Keanu Reeves is a miraculous and welcome oddity. The release of (almost) every new Keanu film, as well as the mere sight of a picture of the actor doing things on social media, always feels like an undeserved blessing. Like a great puppy video, but more so, it makes the rest of the world seem that much greyer.
It is testament to Reeves’ star persona that even those who are only familiar with his latest renaissance, the John Wick series (2014-), can feel his peculiar power. In his best performances, Reeves is allowed to remain, to some significant degree, intensely himself – “a person being one, very intense thing,” as Susan Sontag would put it.
Yes, Keanu is camp, which is what makes him so loveable: there is a profound earnestness and generosity to everything that he does, on-screen and off. The fact that he bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for each of the stuntmen who worked with him on a particularly demanding sequence from The Matrix Reloaded would only be surprising to someone who’d never seen him act.
But while this makes watching Reeves in pretty much any of his roles a delightful experience, some directors have known how to use the actor’s appeal better than others. It might be hard to see for the memes, but a deeper understanding and appreciation of Reeve’s persona is possible – and desirable: the actor has more to offer than good looks, and motorcycles.
The best place to start: Point Break
Kathryn Bigelow’s sexy/goofy testosterone explosion sees Reeves at a frenzied best. In the role of the frantic and ambitious rookie cop Johnny Utah — “young, dumb, and full of cum”, as John C. McGinley’s FBI station head so vividly puts it — the actor gets to explore each of his many strengths at once. Tasked with infiltrating a group of bank robbers, Utah adapts to their lifestyle, which just so happens to include a borderline unhealthy amount of extreme sports. This somehow random addition to an otherwise boilerplate story of cops and robbers is the narrative stretch that allows for Reeves’ good looks, physical prowess, and extreme earnestness to blossom as they have never done before or since.
What to watch next
Of all the films he has starred in, the one most often associated with Reeves remains the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999). An awe-inspiring technical and storytelling achievement, this cyberpunk marvel changed the face of action cinema forever. It is also one of the most coherent and successful entries in a series of roles that see Reeves play a man caught between two realities.
Four years before he became Neo, Reeves was Johnny Mnemonic (1995), a human USB stick paid to carry truckloads of data in his brain. It is no mere coincidence that the film is written by and based on a novel by William Gibson, the writer whose groundbreaking novel Neuromancer was a fundamental inspiration for The Matrix. In both films, Reeves plays a man required to travel back and forth between reality and a virtual interface. But rather than taking the appearance of our world, the digital reality Johnny hacks into is a computer programme represented by deliciously primitive computer graphics.
These two films used Reeves’ flawless features as part of the ideal body of the future, where physical enhancement is accessible and cheap. By contrast, in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) one of his rare villainous roles) and Constantine (2005), the actor’s otherworldly looks fit characters who straddle the boundary between heaven and hell. The two films share a devil-may-care approach to the sacred texts and a brash visual style, but only one of them stars Al Pacino as the devil. The Devil’s Advocate is powered by near-hysterical performances from all involved, including Reeves as a cowardly lawyer who realises too late that he is already in hell.
But perhaps worse than being in literal purgatory is, in the words of Philip K. Dick, “being sentient but not alive.” The author’s classic novel A Scanner Darkly, brilliantly adapted for the screen by Richard Linklater, is a devastating love letter to the many friends he has seen lose their minds or their lives to drug abuse. Reeves plays Bob Arctor, a jobless slacker who is in fact an undercover cop tasked with investigating the drug house he lives in. The film uses rotoscope animation (filmed footage that is then drawn over) to evoke the characters’ drug-induced feeling of unreality, but also to help represent the “scramble suit” that Arctor wears when meeting his bosses: with his outside appearance constantly changing, all that remains of Reeves in these scenes are his idiosyncratic physical movements and his narration, which proves a perfect fit for Dick’s raw and aching prose.
Reeves has not often entered the art house, but his few appearances have been memorable. Sombre teen movie River’s Edge (1986) unites him with Crispin Glover, another unique performer, and together they paint a bleak but highly original portrait of an indifferent and hopeless generation. Five years on, Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991)offers a queerer image of America, pairing Reeves with River Phoenix for a dizzying love story packed full of moments of breathtaking beauty. Reeves has simply never been more magnetic or convincing.
But some of the actor’s most delightful work is kinetic. Besides the martial arts training he puts to such mindblowing use in both the Matrix and John Wick series (the latter films are directed by Chad Stahelski, his stunt double on the former series), Reeves has starred in two worthwhile blockbusters. His distinctive acting style goes well with the base silliness of both Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) and Andrew Davis’ Chain Reaction (1996), his quirks filling in the outlines of his archetypal characters.
Yet as ludicrous Keanu films go, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) remains unequaled. The stoner comedy classic is, naturally, very dumb, but surprisingly sweet and good-natured, in keeping with Reeves’ aura of graciousness. When Bill quotes Socrates’ idiom, “the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing,” it is to highlight the stupidity of the two boys, but the humility of the statement nevertheless shines through.
Where not to start: The Lake House
Though it has its perverse pleasures, The Lake House (2006) showcases only the most ridiculous sides of an admittedly odd performer. Reunited with his Speed co-pilot Sandra Bullock, Reeves here finds himself in another “man between worlds” scenario, but this time deprived of all of his usual tools for dealing with this kind of aberration.
Reeves plays an architect — a cliched romcom job — who exchanges letters then falls in love with a woman who is also living in the house at the time of writing, but two years in the future. The film naturally struggles to build on this flimsy premise and Reeves’ somewhat mannered delivery only makes the hokey dialogue worse. As the plot, by its very nature, prevents the two actors from being in any scenes together, The Lake House is a fundamentally frustrating experience and a waste of a fantastic screen power couple.