Depending on your personal views on the man, Keanu Reeves is either the epitome of what can be achieved with determination, gumption and graft, or one lucky, lucky swine.
His detractors are always quick to pounce because, yes, he’s never boasted a particularly diverse dramatic range and, yes, he never really got his accents together, but he’s also managed to etch out a career whose breadth and length is the envy of hordes of actors with more ‘conventionally recognised’ acting chops. That’s not to say Reeves’ oeuvre (yes, oeuvre) doesn’t contain some profound old sod-plank – it most certainly does – yet said chunderguff has always been liberally counter-weighted by more than his fair share of cheeky little corkers.
So, before we examine his most iconic role as Neo in detail, please join us in celebrating the finest non-Matrices work of the ultimate Hollywood underdog. A man who, let’s not forget, gave $50m of his fee for The Matrix sequels to the costume and effects crews – a fact which, in our minds, makes him both a thoroughly good egg and someone we would most certainly like to get to know personally.
As always, if you’ve got a case to make for your own personal favourite (or one to make against one of ours) then give us what-for in the comments section.
So, without further ado: Keanu Reeves, with your lovely, baffled face, we salute you.
River’s Edge (1986)
It’s difficult to envisage how the Keanu we see here – a shaggy, cherubic proto-Ted – would, within eight years, go on to become one of the world’s most bankable action stars. Yet River’s Edge is, arguably, where it all began: it wasn’t Reeves’ first film, but it was a critical (if not entirely commercial) success, which thrust Reeves into the eyes of some very important people in Hollywood.
That it was a cracking little film helped, of course; a dark, slowly constricting examination of the logical end-point of teen nihilism, made all the more striking for the fact that it drew its inspiration from a similar real-life murder which took place in California in 1981. Crispin Glover’s glacial, emotionally vacant Layne strangles his girlfriend by a river. He then goes on to show her corpse to his friends who – for a time, at least – agree to keep his secret.
This was a challenging early performance from Reeves, tasked, as he was, with playing the most conflicted member of the group. River’s Edge would also be the most serious film he’d make for many years to come, but it’s a powerful, underseen gem. Bill & Ted (1989 & 1991)
Arguably the role Reeves was born to play; the one that served as the career springboard which came to define his early career, not to mention the role for which he is, to this day, both most fondly remembered and oft-quoted.
Teaming up with Alex Winter in bringing the disarmingly clueless duo to life (under the wise tutelage of Rufus, the late, ever-great George Carlin), Excellent Adventure and its superior sequel Bogus Journey remain two undisputed classics of slacker cinema. Bill S Preston, Esquire and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan’s effortlessly befuddled charm ingratiated them into the favour of an entire generation – to such an extent that we’re still hoping for the long-promised-but-ever-illusive third installment, despite both of our beloved metalhead protagonists rapidly approaching 50 years of age. Fifty! Jesus.
Ron Howard’s cuddly and life-affirmingly well-intentioned multi-familial comedy/drama placed Mr Reeves in a much smaller yet perfectly-cast supporting role as somnambulant drag-racing schlub-teen Tod, whose relationship with the 16-year-old Julie (The Goonies’ Martha Plimpton) culminates in pregnancy, which is very British, and marriage, which isn’t.
Reeves slots right into the wonderfully bulbous ensemble (which includes dignitaries like Rick Moranis, Joaquin Phoenix, Diane Keaton and the lovely Mary Steenburgen) with ease, and plays his part to perfection, probably because it’s a part that’s not a million miles away from himself. He also manages to make a proposition of photographing lovemaking – ‘we can record our love’ – about as erotic as your mum licking a napkin and using its soggiest point to power-sand jam from your scowling and mortified face.
Point Break (1991)
And lo! Reeves the action star is born. He plays the enviably-named FBI agent Johnny Utah, sent undercover to infiltrate the surfing community thought to house the ‘Ex Presidents’ gang, wanted for a series of daring bank robberies. Through plot developments coming as a surprise to not a single human alive or dead, he begins to enjoy the high-octane lifestyle into which he must delve, and finds a mentor and friend in Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, the man he suspects is behind all the cash-nicking naughtiness.
Directed by The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break has since passed into action folklore, partly thanks to Hot Fuzz’s genteel ribbing and partly because it’s actually very good indeed. The surfing and skydiving scenes remain exhilarating, the action is solid, and the riffing between the two mains, while undeniably cheesy without your irony goggles (©), is the delicious adhesive holding this bone fide classic of the action genre together.
You might envisage that being a Den of Geek writer entails little but languishing blissfully in a perpetual orgy of erotic encounters with an infinite precession of gothically svelte, coquettishly virile partners. And you’d be right, except about absolutely everything. Yet in Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s divisive adaptation of Stoker’s classic, it is one such harem of fang-slags that bewitches Reeves’ Jonathan Harker into captivity, after Harker travells to the castle of the eponymous vamp to oversee his purchase of some prime British real estate – to be used, presumably, for nefarious Anglo-vamping purposes.
A film once pilloried in some critical corners for reasons besides Keanu’s oscillating English/American patois (which does, admittedly, sound like someone explained the English accent to him using nothing but semaphore and crude Etch-a-Sketch diagrams), Dracula is a film which fares much better on repeated, less critical viewings.
Accent aside, Reeves’ performance is by no means the worst in the film, and the syrupy air of camp dread built around him is seductively palpable if you allow yourself to go along with it. It is Gary Oldman, as the overblown masthead of a wildly daft film, who steals the show, certainly, and Dracula remains a hokily entertaining, preposterously overblown schlocky-horror romp.
Jan de Bont’s ligament-taut adventure really was a masterclass in action spectacle at the time of its release in 1994: a tense, propulsive premise executed with panache and a commendably balls-to-the-wall approach to logic, physics and all manner of equally cumbersome shackles.
Reeves played LAPD golden boy Jack Traven, hot on the tail of Dennis Hopper’s maniacally unhinged ex-cop terrorist Howard Payne who’s holding the city to ransom with a bomb on a city bus; one which will explode if the bus dares to dip below 50 miles per hour, perhaps punishing all those who are pansy enough to drive at speeds below 50 miles per hour.
Despite the fromage-factor occasionally soaring to fungal levels (Reeves’ observation that the bus is carrying “enough C4 to put a hole in the world” is one such oratory clang) and a naggingly tacked-on ending, Speed was the point at which Reeves really found his footing as an action leading man: saving the day + getting the girl + looking buff = triple-action-score.
He was also wise enough to give the insipid sequel a berth so wide you could turn a soul-meltingly slow cruise liner around in it, which is reason enough on its own to declare that Keanu wins hands-down at films.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Starring opposite Al Pacino in a film in which exists solely to let him – in every sense – be on turbo-mega-mental-full throttle would be a daunting task in the extreme for anyone, yet Reeves’s understated yin was absolutely perfect in balancing out the manic, gurning yang of Pacino’s swaggering Beelzebub.
A film which swept aside any notions of nuance or subtlety in favour of strokes broader than Pacino’s serpentine grin, The Devil’s Advocate actually provided Reeves an opportunity to shed some of the action baggage that he’d carried over from Speed into dreck like Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction. He is really quite good in it, too: helped along not only by Big Al but also by Charlize Theron’s mesmerizing performance as his loyal wife, who plummets into helpless and bottomless despair. Reeves pitches his character just about right, and his ‘I really don’t know what’s going on’ face has only been seemed more naturally apposite in The Matrix.
The Devil’s Advocate is an intriguing, seedy little gem of a film; one filled with startling imagery, neat ideas and a beguiling and infectious undercurrent of its knowledge of its own sense of theatrics.
The Gift (2000)
A somewhat overlooked film of Sam Raimi’s, The Gift performed horribly at the box office yet remains an interesting curio in both he and Reeves’ back catalogue. For Reeves, The Gift was the infinitely superior of two back-to-back roles in which he played something of a shit, with the other being his turn as a serial killer in the wretched The Watcher, released that same year.
In The Gift he played the abusive redneck Donnie Barksdale, a man fond of cussin’, drinkin’ and general arseholery, imprisoned for the murder of the women with whom he was having an illicit affair (a pre-Cruise-imprisonment Katie Holmes). The beardy Reeves is impressively nasty, too, holding his own is a powerhouse cast that boasts Giovanni Ribisi, Cate Blanchett, Greg Kinnear and Hilary Swank.
The film does eventually sink into a sludgy pit of its own predictability, yet the ride is an enjoyable one, helped along in no small measure by Raimi’s deft touch and wealth of genre experience. Well worth tracking down.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Surely one of the most faithful Philip K Dick adaptations yet to grace the big screen, Richard Linklater’s twitchy, rotoscoped imagining of the book of the same name starred Reeves as Bob Arctor, a narcotics cop (codename: ‘Fred’) sent undercover to infiltrate his own house full of Substance D addicts, only to become hopelessly embroiled within the fractured paranoia of those he was sent to spy on.
Arctor descends into madness, an oblivious pawn in his superiors’ far-reaching investigation into the sources of the drug which holds 20 per cent of the population in its grasp, and Reeves gives an impressive, gradually unspooling performance amongst a supporting cast of Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane – three actors adept at portraying cripplingly-addled wretches.
A Scanner Darkly succeeds on just about every level Linklater intended: it didn’t set the box office on fire, but Linklater keeping the budget under $10m meant it didn’t have to, which leaves the finished film unfettered by corrosive studio interference, allowing it to gradually settle into its deserved place as a cult classic. A faithful, thoughtful and stylistically impressive piece of work.
Keanu Reeves is not blond. Nor is he, as has previously been confirmed, British. In fact, Reeves’ John Constantine bares little obvious resemblance to Alan Moore’s Hellblazer (who was originally based on dreary tantro-Geordie Sting) besides a knack for pissing off demons, a love of cigarettes, and the fact they both wear shoes. The film is, therefore, possibly best enjoyed when divorced from its source and taken on its own terms.
Constantine is a weary, dapper, neo-noir demon-hunting chainsmoker who carries the unfortunate burden of knowing that, when his bucket’s kicked, he’s going down, not up. Reeves brings a certain uneasy aloofness to the character, replacing much of the icy cynicism of Moore’s vision with a reluctant, almost passive vulnerability.
It’s an unapologetically silly film, of course, yet hard-R comic-book adaptations are rare, and even more rarely are they this well done. Constantine looks utterly tremendous: its visions of demons, hell and exorcisms are truly striking (then first-time director Francis Lawrence would go on to direct I Am Legend, a film similarly steeped in unsettling, albeit more earthly imagery), and the world and story therein it presents, if not particularly original, is expertly crafted, confidently told and relentlessly entertaining.