Since his breakthrough in 1989 with the science fiction comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Keanu Reeves has gone on to have a prolific career in Hollywood, with more than 100 credits to his name. The Canadian actor, born in Lebonana, has starred in some of the best action films of the last 50 years and has proven his skill as a performer in a range of projects, from indie dramas to goofy comedies. His reputation off-screen has even led some to dub him ‘the internet’s boyfriend‘, and though his career has suffered slumps over the years, the actor has always managed to rise from the ashes. His comeback in 2014 with the massive hit John Wick introduced Reeves to a whole new generation of moviegoers while cementing the actor as as one of our last great movie stars.
In addition to his live-action roles, Reeves has lent his voice to numerous animated works, including Toy Story 4, and even appeared as himself in The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run. In the 1990s, Reeves also played bass guitar in the alternative rock band Dogstar.
Despite his impressive body of work, a common refrain from critics and audiences repeated throughout the years is that Reeves is actually a bad actor, who can’t play anybody but himself. That he’s stiff and awkward and even dumb. Though Reeves has certainly missed the mark a few times in his career, most notably with his role as Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, to dismiss his entire filmography would be a waste of an incredibly talented and versatile actor who has proven himself time and time again.
So where are you supposed to start with an actor like Keanu Reeves? We at The Film Magazine have put together a shortlist of three particularly special films that best showcase Reeves’ strengths and his range as an actor, as well as his creative evolution over the years. This is Where to Start with Keanu Reeves.
1. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Released the same year as Point Break, which laid the groundwork for Reeves’ eventual ascent to action stardom, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho introduced Keanu Reeves to adult audiences. The film, partly based upon Shakespeare’s plays about Henry IV and Henry V, stars the late River Phoenix as Mike Waters, a street hustler who suffers from narcolepsy, searching for love and purpose in Portland, Oregon. Reeves plays his best friend Scott Favor, a fellow street hustler and prodigal son of Portland’s mayor, who accompanies Waters on a cross-country road trip in search of his mother.
In My Own Private Idaho, Reeves is cocky, arrogant, elusive, and endlessly charming. He rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket. He doesn’t have to try to be cool – he just is. He’s the kind of guy who will never love you as much as you love him, the kind of guy you’d follow around forever if you could. While Phoenix gives an incredibly vulnerable and heartbreaking performance, it’s worth noting that Reeves is the one who has the burden of spouting Shakespeare, something he does really well. It’s over the top and theatrical, and it’s in those moments that you can really see Reeves’ versatility.
His onscreen partnership with Phoenix, someone he was close friends with in real life, adds to the authenticity of both their performances. Acting is, fundamentally, about reacting, and that’s something Reeves does particularly well. This is perhaps best showcased in the campfire scene in which Mike confesses his love for Scott. It’s a really vulnerable scene and relies almost entirely on Reeves’ ability to listen to his scene partner. You can see the wheels in his mind turning, the way his eyes, alight with fire, watch Mike intently. Reeves doesn’t have to say anything. You know how he feels just by looking at him.
My Own Private Idaho is a really wonderful entry in Reeves’s early career and it’s a great choice if you’re looking for something quiet, poignant, and haunting.
2. Speed (1994)
Keanu Reeves was not the first choice to play bomb disposal specialist Jack Tavern in Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994). According to Esquire, the studio first asked Stephen Baldwin of all people. Fox even went through several other actors before finally settling on Reeves, who hadn’t yet become a household name. It would be six years before he’d star in the groundbreaking dystopian sci-fi The Matrix, and his then-recent performances in the costume dramas Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing weren’t well received by critics. But Speed was a turning point for Reeves. Aside from becoming a huge summer blockbuster, the film made him into an action superstar and a bona fide leading man.
With Speed, Keanu Reeves changed what it meant to be a Hollywood action star. “Unlike the impossibly ripped celluloid supermen of the ‘80s like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Reeves looked human, vulnerable, and life-size,” wrote Chris Nashawaty.
Jack Tavern is badass and heroic and it’s really easy to see why Sandra Bullock’s Annie falls in love with him by the end. His presence is comforting and steady, and he’s never patronizing even when Annie struggles to maintain control of a bus that will blow up if it goes below 50 miles per hour. Speed is as slick and action-packed as it is romantic, and Reeves sells every moment of it.
3. John Wick (2014)
If Speed was a turning point for the career of Keanu Reeves, 2014’s John Wick was his unofficial comeback.
More than a decade after Matrix: Revolutions was released, and following a string of critical and commercial disappointments, Reeves reclaimed his rightful place in Hollywood, reminding us all of what a true movie star looks like.
In the first instalment of this sleek action series, Reeves stars as the titular assassin, who, after a peaceful retirement, is dragged back into the underworld of crime after a group of Russian gangsters, led by Losef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), kill his dog and steal his car. Motivated by revenge and still grieving the death of his wife, Wick embarks on a pulse-pounding, action-packed quest for retribution. The film is often credited with revitalizing the genre and has since grown into an immensely successful franchise.
John Wick is a man of few words. He speaks with his body. The action in the film feels grounded and weighty. When John is wounded, when his gun jams, when he takes a life, we feel it. And it’s all because of how much control Reeves has over his physicality, how in tune he is with his body. Even as the series goes on and action sequences become more elaborate with each new chapter, Reeves makes it all feel real.
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As an actor, Keanu Reeves can transform seamlessly into everything from lovable idiot to cocky playboy, action hero to romantic leading man with a simple raise of an eyebrow or the turn of a phrase. He is vulnerable and human. He’s a generous scene partner, always listening and always watching. More than anything, Keanu Reeves represents the best of what cinema can be, and even though his skills are often overlooked he nevertheless continues to captivate. Critic Angelica Bastien said it best, “… Keanu is more powerful than actors who rely on physical transformation as shorthand for depth, because he taps into something much more primal and elusive: the truth.”