John Wick, finally released on UK screens, is being presented as a comeback film for Keanu Reeves. The decline of a film star from a name in letters 5 feet high outside a cinema to letters centimetres high on DVD cases in Asda is something you only really notice as you get older.
Sometimes the slow drift from being a name that can open a movie in cinemas, to a name that can persuade some foreign investors to back a cheesy DTV saga about, I dunno, Roman Legionnaires vs. Ninjas is nearly imperceptible.
One morning you just wake up and think ‘hey, didn’t John Cusack used to be a movie star?’ Now he can’t even get cast in Hot Tub Time Machine 2.
Now 51, Reeves career has been is a slight freefall since the end of The Matrix series, while there have still been the occasional above the title leads in big budget movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still and 47 Ronin the movies haven’t really excited audiences.
Reeves is perceived a movie star rather than an actor, and one with an appeal that is intrinsically linked to his seeming perpetual youth. But this Peter Pan of stars is finally (and gracefully) beginning to age and has until very recently seemed uncertain of his direction. Or probably more likely casting directors and studio executives have been having trouble seeing him outside the Generation X icon box.
Some of you probably think I’m not serious with this edition of Underappreciated Actors. Maybe you think this is going to be like an article in Vice Magazine, a profile of some wretched wannabe by some wretched wannabe inked with ironic venom? Some pathetic stream of snarky drivel designed to put a snotty grin on the faces of the sort of idiots who wear t-shirts that say “I used to care, but now I take a pill for that”.
Well I say death to irony, irony can un-ironically fuck right off.
I heart Keanu.
It would be insane to argue that Reeves is a great actor, he’s not, he’s something better. Reeves is a bonafide film star. The camera loves him, as it should, he has always been an extremely good looking man, and yet somehow one we would be happy to leave in the company of our girlfriends (or boyfriends). Keanu wouldn’t make a move. He’s just too nice. Like all great film stars he has a quality, difficult to define that pulls people to him and fascinates them. But what is it?
It’s not exactly cool like McQueen, it isn’t urbane elegance like Clooney, or macho bombast like Schwarzenegger. Reeves isn’t a meta-star like I would argue Eastwood was, and Statham is, someone aware of their limitations who plays to their audience. In Statham’s case in a rather obvious take-your-shirt-off-and-roll-in-oil-way, in Eastwood’s a complex examination and subversion of image. Reeves seems blissfuly unaware he even has an image, wandering around like some sort of super-attractive younger version of the Dude from The Big Lebowski in his downtime between roles.
What Reeves has, is a kind of zen blankness onto which the audience can project. Give him something technical and actorly to do, like say an accent, and he stumbles. But ask Kenneth Branagh to say “whoa” with the conviction Reeves musters so effortlessly and he will fail too (and lets not forget Branagh is one of the Reeves fan club too, casting him against type in his 1993 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
“I know, where the bastard lives”
Reeves limitations were never more apparent than in his awkward performance as Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, IMDB just calls it Dracula, but that’s how I remember it being billed). Having said that, he’s still better than the worlds most overrated gammon steak Sir Anthony Hopkins as a panto Van Helsing with a veery zuzpicious akscent. However, throw a pitbull at his head as Kathryn-fucking-Bigelow does in Point Break (1991) and he’s the man.
Keanu has always had detractors, in a 1994 interview with Movieline loathsome human-flesh-eating-extraterrestrial-reptile Charlie Sheen sneered “I mean, how does fucking Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, see Keanu Reeves’s work, see what we’ve all seen, and say, ‘That’s what I want in my movie’? How does Bertolucci see that and say, ‘That’s my guy’? Emilio and I sit around and just scratch our fucking heads, thinking, ‘How did this guy get in?’ I mean, what the fuck? How does Keanu work with Coppola and Bertolucci and I don’t get a shot at that, know what I’m saying?”
It’s not rocket science Charlie, people like Keanu. Do you see where I’m going with this Charlie? Do I need to continue? Good.
The love of the people for Keanu – part man, part adorable Andrex puppy – was never better expressed than by the bizarre ‘sad Keanu’ meme. ‘Sad Keanu’ was sparked off by a simple paparazzi picture of the actor sitting on a bench eating a sandwich, and looking a bit, well, like he was thinking that he needed to do a load of washing when he got home but he really didn’t want to and it was kinda bumming him out. This picture kickstarted a global internet meme, there were websites, amusingly captioned pictures on Facebook, t shirts, mugs, mouse mats, etc, etc. The weird thing is, people seemed really concerned. This wasn’t some privileged, millionaire movie star, this was Keanu, our mate. Keanu touched the heart of millions with a moment of existential angst, he couldn’t be sad, not Keanu. It made you want to bake him cupcakes. It’s time to look at his magnificent body of work. Here are a few personal favourites…
River’s Edge (1986) Tim Hunter’s teen drama was an incendiary film in the eighties, that has for reasons I simply cannot fathom fallen into obscurity somewhat. It still packs a punch. A group of listless teenagers in a dead end town react with disturbing blankness to the sexual murder of one of their peers by her boyfriend. Reeves plays dim but nice metal head Matt and gave hope to a generation of spotty Metallica fans that a girl like Ione Skye might hang out with them. The film also contains one of my favourite line readings by Reeves, as he petulantly reacts to his mom’s live in boyfriend’s attempts to lay some knowledge on him with “The only reason you stay here is so you can fuck my mother and eat her food. MOTHERFUCKER. FOOD EATER.”
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1989 and 1991)
“Please welcome, the very excellent barbarian… MR. GENGHIS KAHN”
Honestly what can you say, except these most excellent films bodaciously top Wayne’s World in my book. Wyld Stallyns 4eva dude!
Point Break (1991)
In ninety one the idea of Ted Theodore Logan playing an action man, especially one called Johnny Utah, was laughable. And Kathryn-fucking-Bigelow’s so-macho-it-turned-the-format-inside-out-and-stuck-a-metatextual-finger-up-its-ass masterpiece flopped on its original release. One of those movies that is clever pretending to be dumb, Point Break was perhaps a little too successful in convincing idiots they were cleverer than it. Now its majesty is justly recognised, and the film has been lovingly homaged in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Keanu’s second time out as an action star and he nails it again. Speed remains one of the nineties finest examples of high concept, neatly summed up in the movie by top class psycho Dennis Hopper “Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?” An action star who appealed to women as much as men, Reeves also hit on dynamite chemistry with so-star Sandra Bullock. The film contains one of my favorite kiss-off lines. Hopper sneers at Reeves “I’m smarter than you”, “yeah, well I’m taller”. Trust me, this is FANTASTIC in context. As a coda, suspicions were raised that Reeves may be smarter than we thought when he made himself absent form the godawful sequel.
The Matrix (1999) Okay, try and imagine any other actor being as good in the role of Neo — the sad sack office drone turned saviour of mankind — as Reeves. You can’t can you?
The Gift (2000) Not a great film, but Reeves is actually very good in Sam Raimi’s supernatural drama cast against type as a loathsome trailer-park dwelling abusive husband.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Another film that uses Reeve’s zen blankness to fantastic effect is Richard Linklater’s superb adaptation of Philip K Dick’s disturbing novel. Reeve’s plays an undercover narcotics cop so freaked out he starts to investigate his own drug addict cover persona. Made utilising a complex rotoscoping technique where the actors become part of an animation, this is a complex, difficult, but absorbing arthouse sci-fi movie and to my mind the best screen adaptation of Dick’s work.
Side by Side (2012)
Released as Reeves was in post production on his own directorial debut, the martial arts film Man of Tai Chi, here the actor produces and presents a documentary looking at the transition from 35mm photochemical film to digital as the primary medium for moviemaking. Reeves is an attentive interviewer allowing a range of A-list filmmaking talent to give their views, but he also shows the sort of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject one would expect in an eighteen year old film student. It is a testament to how much affection there is for Reeves that the roll call of interviewees in the film is mind boggling, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, the Wachowski’s, James Cameron, these are just a few of the people to appear in a fascinating documentary.
Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Man of Tai Chi never really got the release if deserved, dribbling out onto VOD platforms. It’s a modest martial arts film and very old fashioned in its nuts and bolts tournament-to-the-death plotting. But Reeves impresses both behind the camera, staging (with considerable assistance from fight director Yuen Woo Ping and choreographer Yeun Shun-Yee) a handsomely shot fight flick. He casts himself as the villain, a cynical westerner staging last man standing underground fight competitions. Keanu is ageing in a fascinating way, as his puppy dog appeal fades, his amiable blankness is being replaced with something harder, and he seems to be growing in physical presence. The black hat suits him.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Alongside his aforementioned turn as an abusive husband in The Gift, Reeves is again cast against type as the creepy manager of a scuzzy low rent LA motel where Elle Fanning’s aspiring model style in Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultra-stylish fashion horror. It isn’t the biggest part (all the male roles are secondary in the film), but he makes such an impression as a threatening sleaze bag that it makes you wonder why more casting directors have not caught on to his darker side.
Reeves initially appears as a dark shadow behind a screen door, but his deep voice and silhouette are instantly recognisable. The moment his indifferent gaze brushes up and down the distressed Fanning – who is seeking help as she believes someone has broken into her room – you know this is a bad man.
Later in the film as he extorts money out of Fanning’s wannabe photographer and wannabe boyfriend, he dismisses the younger man with a withering line about buying Fanning tampons delivered with true Alpha male menace.
So in conclusion, I love Keanu and no, I’m not kidding.
This article originally appeared on chris and phil presents, and will be updated