As I sit here having just finished Replicas, Reeve’s latest sci-fi film, it hit me that he is the genre Gomer Pyle. For those too old for that reference, it means he’s the guy everyone maligns but secretly loves to see in movies. Full disclosure, there is not a single Keanu Reeves movie I haven’t seen. Literally, I have seen his early romance stuff like Walk In The Clouds and The Lake House, his action movies like Speed and his classic turn as Johnny Utah in Point Break, his continued sports turn as Shane Footsteps Falco in The Replacements(don’t judge it is a personal favorite), and even the bizarre martial arts stuff like 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi. I’ve even seen the obscure off-the-wall stuff like Thumbsuckers.
He gets panned pretty universally as a wooden actor, but ask yourself, if he is so terrible why have so many of his movies been great? It’s not just a few of them either. Sure The Matrix Trilogy comes to mind and with John Wick 3 coming out soon it’s easy to remember those, but consider all the genre films that came before. He’s been cranking out really entertaining performances for forty years. Here is a non-exhaustive but best of highlight list.
The Best of the ’80s
There are two movies that stand out from this decade of neon and parachute pants. Those, of course, being River’s Edge and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The argument could be made that Reeve’s Ted Theodore Logan both solidified his place in genre canon, but also his position as the butt of all acting jokes from that point forward. He was so convincing as the well-meaning but moronic slacker it was hard to separate Keanu from Ted. Small vocal nuances that actors like Johnny Depp have gotten away with for years are crucified when Reeves does them. Take for example the fact that Johnny Depp has been doing variations on his Jack Sparrow since Benny and Joon an admittedly great movie and even better role for him. Reeves doesn’t do kooky, he does regular dude, and he does it so convincingly you think he’s not acting. If you think he is incapable of dramatic acting, however, look no further than the incredible 1986 thriller River’s Edge. He is a perfect foil to Crispin Glover’s fevered energy. As much a character study as a dramatic horror movie this is his best early work. This film is the movie every parent of a teenager should watch as it shows just how easily your “good kid” can be swayed.
The Best of the ’90s
The ’90s is when things really started to take off for Reeves. This era brought so many roles to Keanu he hardly had a chance to breathe between movies. There were horror movies, classic remakes, and sci-fi chillers. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a great movie for a multitude of reasons. Gary Oldman who won an Oscar for his role as the titled vampire in this re-imagining of the classic novel is one. Reeves plays Jonathon Harker an “everyman” lawyer in way over his head. His befuddled understated performance allows Oldman the room to ooze and slink his way through every scene with perfect balance. Picture Chris Pine as Harker. I think Pine is great, but the movie would not be the same without Reeve’s subtle approach. After Dracula, he turned his skills to sci-fi and put out the wildly underappreciated Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction. For a guy with such an exotic name, he plays a lot of Johnnys. While Chain Reaction is not the best sci-fi movie ever his role as Eddie a smart undergraduate student who finds the key to renewable energy(think cold fusion in The Saint) is believable because the movie does not try to be more than it is. It is an action movie with sci-fi elements with a handsome, more than capable lead.
Johnny Mnemonic on the other hand asks only that Keanu’s character dumps massive amounts of data into his brain wet-style. It’s brilliant casting actually to have the data dump dummie played by the guy all the critics thought had no brain. There are some really killer action sequences in this movie that likely laid the groundwork for his iconic turn as Neo in The Matrix Trilogy. The first time he donned those fitted leather pants and full-length bondage gear was in 1999. This movie made history for one-of-a-kind camera work, fight scenes, and balls-out story-telling. The Wachowski siblings(then brothers) wrote and directed a masterpiece that would define what sci-fi movies would be from that moment forth. Reeve’s Neo became a household name. This time around tasked with an almost insurmountable amount of fight choreography and physicality his Neo flourished with his understated approach. Before kicking ass as Neo he was just a disenfranchised hacker and his delivery is pitch-perfect.
The Best of the Early 2000′s
With The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the trilogy was rounded out and enhanced. If you thought the GoT madness surrounding Sunday’s final season premiere was crazy you likely weren’t around during the early 2000s. Reddit didn’t exist back(it was founded in 2005) then so you couldn’t even troll for theories like you can now. People actually talked “old school” about theories and spoilers. Holy trinities, Zion origins, aliens, computer programs….it was all there. Neo just got more badass and better at fighting as each movie went along and that is due to Reeves who trained like a mad man and worked out like a fiend to be prepared for the physically demanding role.
In addition to the final two Matrix, A Scanner Darkly and Constantine kept him in the theaters and in our minds. A Scanner Darkly is bizarre and flat out brilliant. The movie based on the story by Phillip K Dick is dystopian and disturbing but all too plausible and the cast is superb. Along with Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. burns the screen as his real-life troubles with drugs are brought to the screen. The Uncanny Valley nature of the animation allows for Reeve’s more deadpan approach to facial calisthenics to shine rather than detract, and his emotive performance is some of his best work. Constantine paired Reeves with heavy hitters Tilda Swinton and Rachel Weisz. Yet another John, this movie brings him into the world of graphic novels and demon exorcising. Immersive world-building as in The Matrix movies and the support of an amazing cast allows Reeves to shine as this deeply flawed but still redeemable man. He has some really cool fight scenes too, especially with the deliciously androgynous and oh so evil Gabriel(Swinton).
A last sometimes forgotten film that premiered in 2000 The Gift was a supernatural gothic horror story with possibly the best ensemble cast of a genre movie ever. Cate Blanchett plays the psychic who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery. The cast includes Katie Holmes, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Kim Dickens from Lizzie, JK Simmons, and Gary Cole to name a few. Reeves gets to play a truly meaty role as the worst kind of middle-aged Dad. There is one scene with Ribisi that is not to be missed and will convince even the most skeptical that the man really can act.
The Best of the last 10 years
With this actor well into middle age, you would think he would slow down or at least take a break from the more demanding physical roles. You would be dead wrong. In 2013 John Wick hit theaters and who knew Keanu(playing yet another John) would be able to bring this reformed killer on a mission of vengeance? He showed a full gamut of emotions from anger to sadness to controlled icy rage. He also did his own fight scenes and gun work so you know he’s still got it. John Wick Chapter 2 which came out two years ago was just as much fun and cemented the appeal of this hitman with a heart. John Wick Chapter 3-Parabellum is already in the can and is set to drop May 17th so we won’t have to wait long for another glimpse of this dog-loving, excommunicated, most wanted long-locked assassin on the run.
The Neon Demon from provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is a lot. It is gory, bizarre, and just this side of insane. It also is incredibly insightful and Reeves turn as slimy landlord Hank is memorable in a movie with so many unforgettable moments. If you haven’t seen this film plan to do it soon, but only on an empty stomach. On second thought make sure you eat enough to not be hungry if you are watching with friends.
The Bad Batch from Ana Lily Amirpour is a wild ride through cults and cannibalism. Reeves makes an appearance as the cult leader ironically named The Dream and steals the show. Jim Carrey and Jason Momoa also star in this story of hard choices and the decisions we have to make to survive. Amirpour borrows quite a few of the tricks from her critical darling A Girl Walks Home At Night in The Bad Batch but with a fresh spin. She is a young director to watch and she clearly saw something in Reeves.
He’s not stopping anytime soon with pre-production starting on the hotly anticipated Bill and Ted sequel, a television series titled Rain, and a superhero movie from Netflix titled Past Midnight rumored. He’s played cops, lawyers, criminals, warriors, superheroes and coaches. That’s by no means a complete list. Seven degrees of Kevin Bacon should be seven degrees of Keanu. It’s time to embrace Keanu Reeves in all his glory. If the great movies aren’t enough he seems to be a heck of a nice guy too. Oh, and if you are wondering he has played a John no less than nine times including Don John in Much Ado About Nothing.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.