In Five Films

In Five Films: Keanu Reeves

To mark the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we look back at Keanu Reeves’ singular stardom in five key performances

Can an entire career be captured In Five Films? We attempt to showcase every side of a particular filmmaker, actor, or film person in just a handful of picks.

Now one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors – with as strong a box-office reputation as he has ever had – Keanu Reeves’ fascinating journey through the highs and lows of the industry has proven to be about as interesting as the film themselves. The Canadian actor has embodied a particularly earnest kind of movie stardom for more than thirty years now, recently returning to his roots as a comedic performer.

But it wasn’t always that way. In an era of po-faced action performances that showed little sign of fragility, Reeves burst onto the scene as the rare movie star willing to be truly vulnerable, setting the actor against a trend embodied by the likes of more traditional action stars. That Reeves’ often-tragic personal life has mirrored the angst of his greatest performances has made him a better, more thoughtful actor.

To coincide with the release of sequel Bill & Ted Face the Music, we look back at five essential Reeves performances that have come to define his unique talents…

 

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If John Wick set the precedent for Keanu Reeves taking self-reflexive comedic roles that gave a wink toward his real-life stardom – see Toy Story 4 and Key & Peele’s tribute comedy Keanu Bill & Ted Face the Music serves as the latest project to allow Reeves to reflect on his legacy. But it all had to start somewhere. More than thirty years ago, Reeves starred alongside Alex Winter in the first entry to the wacky cult franchise. The actor’s winning charm and memorable line delivery won him early acclaim as a uniquely sincere performer in an all-too-cynical era. Yet despite this early comedy role, Reeves’ filmography has been largely absent of out-and-out laughs, with the actor tending to take darker projects than most of his peers. That the long-awaited sequel will be a rare chance to see the actor return to his roots makes it all the more exciting.

 

Point Break (1991)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If the first entry in the Bill & Ted franchise was where Keanu Reeves’ frontline acting career started, Point Break saw Reeves enter the mainstream. Kathryn Bigelow’s well-remembered action drama made a healthy profit at the box office twenty-nine years ago and allowed Reeves to audition as a different kind of movie star: one with real emotional intelligence. Roger Ebert’s judgment – that Point Break focused not on “men of action,” but “men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs” – has become a theme of its star’s glittering career. And on a more important level, Point Break was Reeves’ first role in a film directed by a woman: it’s well-known that Reeves has appeared in more female-helmed films than any other actor of his generation. That can’t be separated from the thoughtfulness and emotionality of his action-star persona, a quality first glimpsed in Point Break.

 

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

My Own Private Idaho is perhaps the film which inspires the strongest passions of any Reeves performance, aided by a loud cult following. Withnail & I meets Henry V in Gus van Sant’s 1991 drama about a troupe of gigolos striving to stay afloat in Portland, Oregon. One of the performances of the decade from River Phoenix became the feted one, but Reeves transformed the Shakespeare-inspired Scott Favor into a repressed and relatable young man of the 1990s. Favor takes on the Prince Hal arc brilliantly, with Reeves’ dramatic turn aided by a skilful wielding of the film’s ambitious iambic pentameter. Following playful work in Bill & Ted and an action star’s turn in Point Break, My Own Private Idaho gave Reeves his first shot at a hefty emotional role. It’s a test he passed comfortably, winning roles in Kenneth Branagh and Frances Ford Coppola projects shortly afterwards.

The Matrix (1999)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Surely the jewel in the actor’s crown, Reeves’ unforgettable “chosen one” performance in The Matrix helped make it the most celebrated sci-fi film of the nineties. And a philosophical text in its own right, Reeves’ turn as Neo has become among the most studied. Reeves’ charismatic performance, which movingly tapped into the doe-eyed quality of his earlier work, was a central reason for the film’s quick ascension to the status of cultural phenomenon. It might sound like an insult to say that Reeves plays confusion better than most movie stars, whose curated personas often necessitate a stone-cold manner of being in control at all times. But the actor’s endearing capacity for genuine vulnerability has elevated many of his performances above the grey stoicism of his contemporaries. In that sense, Neo is more than just a character, but a seminal lesson for actors in how to connect. Moreover, the athleticism of the character – particularly in the shot everyone still remembers – sealed Reeves’ status within the popular consciousness for generations to come.

 

John Wick (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The sleeper smash-hit action franchise built around the most unlikely of movie stars, Reeves’ self-reflexive performance in John Wick has become the most iconic performance of his late career – and singlehandedly shepherded a Reeves renaissance. The actor’s most personal role to date, Wick carefully navigated the traumas inflicted upon Reeves during the decade and a half which followed The Matrix, in which the actor lost a child and his partner within six months, and faded from the public consciousness. But the actor’s trademark sincerity made John Wick’s near-inconceivable premise seem perfectly reasonable; put simply, not even Liam Neeson couldn’t make a dog-kidnapping action franchise work. Three well-received films and almost $500 million in worldwide box-office receipts later, Reeves is once again a household name and perhaps as bankable a performer as he has ever been. The first entry’s immortal line, “I’m thinking I’m back”, became a handy illustration of the actor’s enviable 2010s, which ended with a playful turn in billion-dollar-grosser Toy Story 4. Here’s to the next decade.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is now showing in UK cinemas.

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