This week’s question is in honor of the release of John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, and its irreplaceable lead:
What is your favorite Keanu Reeves role?
There’s a tendency, when watching the work of Keanu Reeves, to dismiss his signature low-affect approach to acting as something dull, or maybe even lazy. But his best roles—and I’d argue that there is no finer Keanu Reeves role than John “Baba Yaga” Wick himself—share with Reeves a sort of glacier-like intensity, hiding an ocean’s worth of pain behind his quietly evaluating eyes and distinctively stiff-armed posture. It’s the rare action star who can make Wick’s particular kind of video game invincibility look both incredibly cool and entirely deliberate, holding himself with the calm assurance of a man who is literally not afraid to mow down dozens of mooks in the span of a minute at some sort of fancy event. But Reeves is just as compelling in the franchise’s utterly ludicrous (and typically wonderful) dialogue scenes, where his world-weary resignation contrasts so perfectly with the high-concept silliness surrounding him. And when he ever so briefly breaks—as in the first film, when he finally, hatefully declares “I’m back” to his old gangster allies, or the ending of the second, in which it you can begin to see it set in how utterly fucked he might be—Reeves lets us get the quickest glimpse of the man lurking beneath the perpetual, apparently imperturbable scowl.
In someone else’s hands, Neo would’ve been a badass superhero. He’s the most important man on the planet, and he’s essentially all-powerful when he’s jacked into the virtual world of The Matrix, so you might expect him to have some swagger. That’s not how Keanu Reeves plays him, though, with his Neo flying through the Matrix movies with a bit of wide-eyed disbelief at everything he’s experiencing, and I think it’s a much more interesting approach. A lot of this comes from Reeves’ usual energy level, but Neo always seeming a bit out of his depth lends some much-needed humanity to the story. After all, he’s just a regular computer nerd who got cool abilities downloaded into his brain who hasn’t spent actual years training to be a soldier, so whether it was an actual choice on Reeves’ part or not, Neo’s vague detachment from the world around him actually feels like a more natural response to the insanity of The Matrix than him being confident and… as traditionally charismatic may have been.
Keanu Reeves is one of those celebrities whose image has outgrown his actual personality, to the extent that the line between man and meme has become permanently blurred. (See also: Nicolas Cage.) In Keanu’s case, at least, I would argue that this is actually a good thing, as the Keanu role that’s closest to my heart isn’t a movie, or a TV show, but a meme. Sad Keanu was born back in 2010, when a paparazzi photographer took a picture of him sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich and looking totally bummed out. Since then, he’s has grown to encompass many shades of ennui, including staring off into the middle distance, sitting quietly with your eyes closed, and my personal favorite, smoking with no shoes on. I do hope that the man behind the meme is actually quite happy, and just needs a minute alone sometimes to get into character. But as the physical manifestation of the spiritual exhaustion that defines our current era? Long may Sad Keanu reign.
I think everything great about Keanu Reeves can be traced back to his first starring role (well, not quite “starring”—he gets second billing to a wildly enjoyable and twitchy Crispin Glover) in 1986’s River’s Edge. Reeves plays Matt, a punk-ass teenager who hides a sensitive soul underneath his mumbly, inarticulate exterior. It’s essentially the ur-role that defined Reeve’s persona from which all his future roles would borrow. He’s anti-authoritarian, but still has a moral code. He slumps and shrugs his way through every scene with a stoned Californian drawl, but he’s also almost impossibly beautiful. When one member of their group of friends murders another, and then proceeds to brag about it, Matt is the first to, eventually, report the murder. This creates a schism that cuts through the group’s collective, uncertain silence, but Matt seems to be the only member of the group capable of seeing the humanity of the friend they lost. It’s a strange, sharp film, and other than being an intense examination of being young and disillusioned in the economic margins of a rapidly shifting culture, it also has one of the best insults ever hurled in a movie.
When you’re caught in a catastrophe wrought by the trappings of modern convenience—a stuck elevator, say, or handcuffed to a runaway rail train, or trapped on a bus that can’t go under 50 miles an hour—who better to lead you to safety than Keanu Reeves? His most excellent turn in 1991’s Point Break led to Reeves heading up his own action movie a few years later, and Speed remains one of the (dumb but fun) greats. Madman Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) may have a master plan, but his careful machinations are no match for Jack Traven’s combo of unstoppable bravery and inherent cool. For situations as fucked-up as that Speed bus and its bundle of innocent passengers, Keanu’s Jack is the perfect foil to villain Howard’s criminal mastermind plotting; since Jack lacks Howard’s unhinged revenge-fueled emotionality, he is able to calmly and methodically figure out a successful plan (taking the bus to the airport, getting the passengers off), pulling off bravado stunts like climbing under a moving bus or felling the villain on top of a speeding train in the meantime. And Jack’s not going to leave until everyone else is safe, because, as he shrugs, he “didn’t have anywhere to be just then.” Reeves’ other action movies like The Matrix and John Wick turned into franchises, but you can see the beginnings of those successes in Speed, where he’s at his benevolent best. No wonder Speed 2: Cruise Control flopped without him.
As a 700-year-old man, my love for Keanu Reeves can always be easily traced back to the first role I ever saw him in, and which made me decide he was America’s—nay, the world’s—finest thespian: Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I was probably 8 years old when I first saw the movie, and it burned into my brain with the force of a thousand suns, or a single riff of Wyld Stallyns’ planet-altering hard rock, those two things being roughly equivalent. Seeing the amiably dimwitted Ted “whoa” his way through history, goofing around with famous faces from the past, and air-guitaring with abandon in response to just about any positive development in his life, no matter how minuscule, left me with a severe case of thinking deeply unintelligent stoners (the movie never shows them getting high, but let’s get real, here) are just about the awesomest people around. Reeves’ dedication to capturing the Platonic ideal of the guy who sat behind you in junior-year Spanish class, reading comics and occasionally asking if he could “take a quick peeparoo at your tarea, amigo” captured my imagination. It led to endless replaying of the soundtrack, quickly purchased from Sam Goody, and repeated efforts to talk like Ted, much to the dismay of my parents. Keanu Reeves has done a lot of very cool stuff, but the blissfully low-watt bulb of his wannabe rocker remains my northern star to the map of his career.
I have not seen Toy Story 4 yet (aside from a couple of trailers), but I don’t need to see Toy Story 4 to know that Duke Caboom—the Canuck with all the luck!—is my new favorite Keanu Reeves character. At first glance, the braggadocios action figure doesn’t seem to have much in common with the rest of the roles that make up the actor’s oeuvre, but he’s actually been assembled from parts of other Keanu characters. He’s got Johnny Utah’s swagger, the misguided gallantry of Chevalier Danceny, the doubts of John Constantine. For the moment, Duke Caboom is a mystery, but I’ve no doubt he’ll learn the same lessons in humility and teamwork as Nelson Moss, Conor O’Neill, and Shane Falco. Reeves himself informs the character, who is also Canadian (“the most spectacular daredevil Canada has ever seen!,” in fact) and loves to ride motorcycles. All we need now is to see Duke Caboom eating a sandwich and co-authoring a book of shadows.