This whole resurgence of popularity for Keanu Reeves, which has included a kinder reception to his abilities as an actor, has been a little weird. I’m happy for the guy. I’ve also been a fan of his work for as long as I can remember. That’s one of the most hipstery things I’ll hopefully ever say in this column. Nonetheless, it’s true, and it’s strange to see public opinion move in that direction. John Wick and its success has a lot to do with that. At the same time, I think there’s more to it.
Durability always counts for something. We certainly admire it in others. Keanu Reeves has worked in nearly 100 films and television shows since 1984. In the majority of them, he has been one of the stars. Also, in the majority of them, he is quite good.
There is no question that Reeves is at his best with specific types of characters. It’s also very, very hard to argue that he’s at his best when unencumbered by an accent. It’s okay. That California tone is hard to shake. I’d also say that because Reeves is so effective at playing certain types of loners, heroic figures, or the quietly desperate, it’s hard to see him trying to stretch beyond that. At any rate, performances in movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be a little hard to sit through sometimes.
But so what? The truth of the matter is that there are far more good Keanu Reeves performances than bad ones. Reeves may have a specific range, but that’s worked out well for him across dozens of roles in a career that seems to be on an upswing at the moment. It’s an odd thing to say about someone who has had tremendous success for several decades, but I’d go so far as to say he’s earned the current accolades.
1. River’s Edge (1986)
Director: Tim Hunter
One of the bleakest movies about youth ever made in the United States, River’s Edge is a tough one to sit through. That isn’t because of the story, which is as powerful as it is absolutely harrowing. That certainly isn’t because of the exceptional cast, which includes Reeves, Crispin Glover, Ione Skye, and Dennis Hopper. If you’ve never seen River’s Edge, which depicts the fallout for a group of teens whose friend murdered his girlfriend, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
The movie strands its characters in an emotional wasteland. Things get worse, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will get better. Keanu Reeves in particular provides one of the film’s most memorable depictions of hopeless, enraging confusion.
2. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Director: Peter Hewitt
This could well be blasphemy, but I’ve always liked the somewhat-maligned sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The film, which sends Bill and Ted on a journey through Heaven, Hell, and elsewhere, is considerably weirder than the first film. The movie flies so quickly, even recklessly through encounters with death, the torments of the underworld, killer robot clones, and space aliens, you feel as though you just experienced a tornado of ideas. Somehow, it all manages to add up to an ending that’s more satisfying than it sometimes gets credit for.
Both Reeves and Alex Winter obviously help the movie work out as well as it does. Timing and delivery are important in something like this, which often depends on how Bill and Ted respond to the madness going on around them. Like a lot of the movie, it’s an underrated component.
3. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant’s story of two hustlers on a freewheeling journey through their chaotic life and times is one of his best. Although the late River Phoenix casts a large, justifiable shadow over this grim, compelling drama, Reeves as the other half of the pair is just as riveting.
The complex, nuanced character gave Reeves one of the best roles of his career, a character who has to come to terms with a number of different parts of his life and ambition. Reeves absolutely nails every development the character sustains, while also making us feel at least a little more empathetic towards him, than we would if another actor was in the role.
My Own Private Idaho has moments of wild spirit, but it’s ultimately a pretty unhappy story. If you’ve never seen it, tell me what you think of the ending.
4. Speed (1994)
Director: Jan de Bont
To date, Speed has the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes of any Keanu Reeves movie. Obviously, that doesn’t really justify its inclusion here, but it’s interesting to note all the same.
Speed is a 1990s summer blockbuster masterpiece, if such a thing can reasonably exist. It is a wonder of editing, an extremely straightforward premise (a bus will explode if it goes under 50mph), and performances. Dennis Hopper gets the cheesy, fun-as-hell-to-say lines as the movie’s villain, but a big part of the movie’s popularity then, and occasional bursts of popularity since, comes down to Reeves and costar Sandra Bullock.
Most of the more enjoyable summer spectaculars make an allowance for not only good chemistry between cast members, but casting people who can find something within the ridiculous material in the first place. For someone who is allegedly a bad actor, Reeves has accomplished that on a number of occasions. Speed is one of the most entertaining examples.
5. John Wick (2014)
Director(s): Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
A surprise critical and commercial success, John Wick laid the groundwork for this ongoing celebration of all things Keanu Reeves. Call it a comeback? Maybe, although Reeves has appeared in several good movies in the 2000s and 2010s. The Matrix is obviously worth noting, but there are others. However, while good, many of them are not necessarily memorable.
No one will accuse John Wick, both the man and movie, of being boring. The story of a former hitman who goes on a scorched earth ass-kicking spree after the murder of a loved one is another fairly straightforward story. That’s fine. The movie is a whirlwind of breathtaking fight choreography, fun characters, and an ongoing idea of justice that seems to have a particularly significant emotional resonance these days. Reeves helps create that connection, although the movie lets him spend more time coming up with inventive ways to kill several people very, very quickly. Through the fight scenes and splashes of violence, John Wick still needs us to care about the title character in the first place.
Could someone else besides Reeves do that for us? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be the same. That fact seems to be occurring to more and more people these days.