Keanu Reeves has had two recorded turning points during his successful acting career in Hollywood. One pretty early, with a small comedy that exploded at the box office and spanned a sequel, and then a science fiction action film that turned him into an untouchable.
He didn’t intend it to be that way. As a matter of fact this Canadian actor, who was actually born in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 2, 1964, came to Hollywood like everyone else does, to make it in the movies and was more interested serious roles, which is exactly what he subscribed for, first being cast in films about the trials and tribulations of youth, like Youngblood and River’s Edge (both from 1986), then stepping into more complex productions, like Stephen Frear’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988) Lawrence Kasdan’s I love You To Death (1990), Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and even Coppola’s Dracula (1992). But his non-stop presence made him run into a comedy about two young kids and their clash with history in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
He tried to alternate serious films with “only-for-the-money” contracts, to keep his name in the minds of the audiences, and was cast in some high profile films like Point Break by Kathryn Bigelow and then Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993). But the real success would come with another film that was not supposed to break any records: Speed (1994), an action film he made next to newcomer Sandra Bullock. He capitalized on this success with other action films (just not Speed 2, please), which he balanced by taking some romantic fares to try and stretch his acting muscle. After all, his action performances are all coated by a sense of stoicism and sometimes even a hieratic expressionless face, which, by the way, ended up earning him a nomination as Worst Actor at the Golden Raspberry Awards in A Walk in The Clouds in 1995, along with his performance in Johnny Mnemonic the same year.
After some less successful films, he was cast as Neo in The Matrix (1999), and suddenly he took advantage of his acting style to create a new super hero, which in turns made him a larger-than-life star in a film that quickly became the new Star Wars event. He would not repeat the same success with any of the subsequent films but his place as a bankable lead was already secured and he had become a personality, which means he was sometimes cast in films just to stand there and look like Keanu Reeves (like the small role he had in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) or the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008).
He has taken on other interests, like theater (playing Hamlet among other pivotal roles), playing music, writing the text for a picture book entitled Ode to Happiness, producing the documentary Side by Side (2012) and directing his first film Man of Tai Chi (2013), which premiered at the Beijing Film Festival and Cannes.
A Celebrity in full, Keanu has both enjoyed and suffered the perks that come with stardom, being stalked by women, sued by a paparazzo and mocked with an unofficial holiday created by a Facebook fan page that declared June 15 the “Cheer-up Keanu Day”. Tabloids, as usual, have published stories that don’t match with reality (like him being a Buddhist), which he didn’t care much to deny, to others that seem to be true (that he gives a percentage of his huge salary to the crew of films he stars in), which he doesn’t confirm either.
And so, this very private public figure earned his place in the universe, which has given him the chance to do pretty much anything he’s wanted. That’s the definition of a beautiful career, if you ask me.
Here’s a little walk in Keanu’s clouds.
The very best of Keanu Reeves
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Considered a cult classic, this comedy centers on two slackers who travel through time to assemble some historical figures, which will help them with their high school presentation. The film became young Keanu’s first actual success and it spanned a sequel (and a third project still in development) and two spin-off television series, one of them animated. Keanu created a blank face and loose-limbed teenage character, providing enough silliness to an already simple entertainment film.
Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow directed this testosterone marathon about surfing criminals led by Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi (do you get the nuanced name?) and a policeman named Johnny Utah (Keanu) who infiltrates the band and his loyalties start to crumble. The film was originally called as its lead character, but the name was later dropped for a more surfing-related one. Charlie Sheen, Val Kilmer, Johnny Depp and Matthew Broderick were considered first for Utah (which, together with Swayze’s, was considered by some critics as having a certain hidden homosexual subtext), something that Reeves played down with his usual static macho-like posture and tone of voice.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Early in the director Gus Van Sant’s career, he made this independent film about street hustlers with the immersive work of both Reeves and the late River Phoenix. It is an experimental drama that explores friendship and contains some homosexual undertones that never actually materialize, coming closer to the relationship between the characters played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969). The film was acclaimed at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals and received accolades from most film critics. Keanu was considered more than an action star after this film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
In Coppola’s megalomaniac and no-hold-barriers version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Keanu Reeves was the romantic figure of Jonathan Harker, the classical lead who (as in Dangerous Liaisons) ends up being caught and degraded from safe macho role. Because of the nature of Harker, Keanu was criticized for being the weaker actor in the ensemble. The problem wasn’t much that he was weak, but that the rest were pushed to their limits in meatier and almost over-the-top performances.
Little Buddha (1993)
Bertolucci called this the third in his “Oriental” trilogy (The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky being the first two). Keanu, of all actors, was cast as Siddhartha, a prince in ancient Nepal, who turns his back on his wonderful life and ends up learning the true nature of life, consciousness and reality. Even if the film has an exquisite production, and a screenplay that jumps different levels of reality and timeframe, it failed to be recognized in America as it was in Europe. Nowadays, it is regarded as Keanu’s most curious acting choice.
Director of photography Jan de Bont started his successful but short directing career with this actioner about the hijacking of a public bus on a regular summer day and how a simple bus rider and a SWAT officer save the day. It’s a formulaic but very effective entertainment that rises from the competition on the base of its action sequences, plot twists and the pivotal performances by Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Daniels. It became a blockbuster and spanned copycats and a sequel of lesser interest to which Keanu didn’t want to be involved (rightly).
Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Already a name above the title, Keanu shared the screen with Al Pacino as a defense attorney who is unaware he’s working for…the guy in the title. The film was not very well received because of its simple delivery and foreseeable storyline, but it was somewhat successful as a character study thanks to the lead actors and the way they interact onscreen.
The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
This was Keanu’s unexpected juggernaut blockbuster. A sci-fi action film that spanned two sequels and a cult following to this day, giving the last push Keanu needed to become a star. Keanu’s performance fit perfectly with his usually stoic demeanor turning him into a new breed of action figures: not muscled as Schwarzenegger or enduring as Willis, but precise, and cerebral; a man who doesn’t act out of pure killing instinct but carefully planned right moves. To this day Neo has remained in pop culture as strongly as Luke Skywalker, marking some of his future choices (as we would later see in 47 Ronin (2013) for example).
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Richard Linklater thought Keanu wasn’t going to be interested in yet another sci-fi (after the Matrix trilogy, Johnny Pnemonic, Chain Reaction and even the apocalyptic Constantine), but he was wrong. Keanu starred in this rotoscopied animated science fiction thriller based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, which caught the attention of the critics, who had already praised Linklater’s previous animated outing A Waking Life because of its technique that required to actually film the actors in real life and then modify the footage. This was a precursor of the CGI motion detection system that is now widely used. In truth, all the cast was fantastic (Wynona Rider, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Reeves).
Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Keanu’s directorial debut is yet another action film which contributes to his screen persona as a cerebral action figure. It is a multilingual martial arts film partially inspired by stuntman Tiger Chen (who also co-stars). Keanu had the opportunity to participate in the whole filming process, which took five years, including revising the script and acting in several B movies. On the screen, Keanu did not break any new ground, opting to stick what the audience already knows about him. For his effort he was awarded at Beijing and praised by director John Woo.
John Wick (2014)
A year after his (unjustly) unsuccessful 47 Ronin, Keanu attacks again with another violent film, dressed in saturated colors and a character that comes from a dark place only to be drawn into more violence. Take Neo and Constantine and even Utah, mix them until they get a very annoying headache and a bad temper and you’ll get to where this Wick is standing. Keanu didn’t want to repeat the same formula of his previous performances, so he creates a character with more gravitas and even empathy. But don’t let this fool you. It is another version of the archetypal action character, sold by the studios to a video game, a place where many of Keanu’s characters end up.