Photo from The Legend of Keanu Reeves, GQ
Keanu Reeves. Beloved and deeply familiar, yet somehow still enigmatic.
But why? And how? Keanu has been a consistent part of our cultural consciousness since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came to the cineplex in 1989. His star has waxed and waned since then, and he’s made some real stinkers, let’s be straight. But he’s come through that thirty year stretch in remarkably good odor and is enjoying a new moment of adoration. A Keanuissance, if you will, and not the first.
Recently, in order to bring the power of the scientific method to bear on these questions, my friend Hemal Jhaveri and I watched a different Keanu Reeves movie every week for three months. (Given the times, we did so in the form of a weekly podcast.)
We hoped that in doing so we might unearth something about the dark, quotidian heart of America. Mostly we did not. But we did arrive at five reasons why people love Keanu Reeves.
Keanu’s Three Great Strengths: Unflappability, Likability, Hair
In the best Keanu movies we watched, we identified three key strengths. Unflappability, likability and hair.
Keanu does unflappable really well. Sometimes he says “whoa” in a low voice. Sometimes it’s all in the eyes. But from the almost comically imperturbable assassin John Wick to the alert but tranquil Jack Traven from Speed, when something dramatic and crazy happens, Keanu stays cool.
He’s also really likable. Which doesn’t seem like an acting choice, necessarily. But while Forrest Whitaker or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman might repel or attract us in a role by truly inhabiting a character, Keanu’s gift of impossible likability is something rarer and stranger — the stuff of movie stardom.
And hair? The man has incredible hair, and — in his best roles — his hair tells you what’s up. In the Matrix, Thomas Anderson starts with boring officer worker hair, only to reveal stubbly dystopian future hair when he comes gasping out of a tub of goo. And then, as he masters the mysteries of the Matrix? Gun hair. If his gung-ho demeanor and ridiculous name didn’t clue you in that Point Break’s Johnny Utah was a straight-shooting lawman, his Midwestern football player hair would. And Ted (Theodore) Logan’s floppy mess says “I am about to drop out of high school” clearer than any report card.
Keanu Does Kung-Fu, and He Means it
Keanu is a supremely gifted (and hard-working) physical actor. He’s at his best when he’s running or kicking or leaping onto a moving object. In roles that require our hero to convey inner landscapes, his talents flag. But when he’s propelling a movie forward by doing stuff, he’s in his element.
At first, this may sound like damning with faint praise. You know, he’s not a real actor, but he’s a good action star. But the more we watched Keanu’s films, the more we came to appreciate what his brand of physical acting can convey onscreen. In Speed, he’s jumping on that bus (And then back off! And then back on!); in the Matrix he’s walloping bad guys; in Point Break he’s skydiving and surfing and chasing bank robbers. And you always believe, as a viewer, that the character is really doing these things.
As a people, we tend to treat action movies as second-class fare. It’s fine for pork chop night, but it’s not, you know, cinema. People fan themselves when Daniel Day Lewis lives in a shack with no heat or stops taking baths for a role, but here’s Keanu, up at 4 am for MONTHS practicing kung fu so that shit will look bad-ass and legit onscreen. That’s the real deal.
Keanu Seems a Genuinely Decent Fellow
I love movies, especially big-budget Hollywood movies. But learning about a celebrity movie star offscreen is a proposition with almost no upside. The culture machine packages these handsome, charming people for you to consume in a bewildering variety of ways. They’re on Instagram, they’re on the Late Show, they’re in your magazine and on your phone, smiling and winking and having a laugh. But none of that makes you enjoy the movies any more, and can easily make you enjoy them less. Plus a lot of famous people are jerks, or worse.
I assumed Keanu Reeves was like that. But, refreshingly, he doesn’t seem to be. He has no social media accounts and he visibly dislikes doing press. He’s famous enough that there’s plenty of material about him out there, but he doesn’t seem a willing participant in any of it except the actual movies that he makes.
Even better, the further along Keanu got in his career, the more he put his leverage towards shining a spotlight on other people. He made Man of Tai Chi because he wanted his friend, the stuntman Tiger Chen, to be the star of a movie. He sought out his favorite fight choreographers to direct John Wick, even though the studio was skeptical. He drove a motorcycle from Canada to Florida to make sure River Phoenix read the script for My Own Private Idaho.
And, in an era where women are so rarely given the opportunity to make films, and few A-list male stars have worked with any woman directors, Keanu has starred in over a dozen movies directed by women.
Keanu is Not a Leading Man
Looking at Keanu’s better movies, as well as some of his real stinkers, one theme emerged strongly: Keanu cannot be made to fit the movie. The movie must be made to fit Keanu.
At a certain point in his career, Keanu was a bankable movie star. He seemed to be a leading man in the style of Brad Pitt or Kevin Costner — handsome, reliable, successful. But in movies like The Lake House or Hardball, where he’s playing these traditional leading man roles, he’s just not very good. In the roles where you can’t imagine anyone else, like John Wick or The Matrix, he’s gold. But in roles that someone else could have easily played, he’s ho-hum.
Again, going into this project, this seemed a weakness of Keanu. Okay, well, sure, he just has a limited range, man. But the more we watched, the more we came to appreciate his essential strangeness when it came to these sorts of roles.
As Americans, we’re fed a steady diet of cliched, nutrient-free entertainment. Hero cops and soulful divorced dads and honorable lawyers looking for justice no matter the cost. It’s not as if Keanu is above these roles. He’s certainly tried them. But when he’s stuffed like a pig into the familiar chute of the by-the-numbers wannabe blockbuster, he’s simply not very good. And, as viewers, we grew to appreciate that. Maybe he doesn’t want to do it, or maybe he’s unable to do it. He’s resistant to bad filmmaking at a reflexive, almost molecular, level.
Keanu Believes in Movies
It may strain credulity to think of Keanu Reeves as some kind of principled auteur. Just glance through his filmography and you’ll find plenty of indifferent, forgettable or downright terrible movies. We even watched a few of them. (Hemal loves The Lake House, but it’s terrible.)
But in his brightest moments, Keanu chooses to do movies that bring something new into the world. The best example, of course, is The Matrix. Twenty years after it came out, it’s hard to remember The Matrix as challenging or ground-breaking. But it was. It created a visual language for action that has been so widely imitated it feels cliche. And it used the vehicle of a Hollywood blockbuster to treat seriously ideas about the nature of reality and the nature of self; a weird, epic, Marxist, Buddhist, kung-fu movie with trenchcoats and Laurence Fishburne.
Another film we watched was Man of Tai Chi, Keanu’s debut as a director. He also plays the villain. Interestingly, it’s not a commentary on kung fu movies or a twist or a take. It’s just a kung-fu movie, an old-fashioned genre flick. Keanu takes it seriously; no flashy cuts, just wide shots of people actually doing spectacular hand-to-hand combat.
We did not watch the entire Keanu filmography, because that is simply too much Keanu. Instead, we concentrated on his best-known movies, interspersed with a few lesser works that we thought might offer some insight.
Below is a short recap of each Keanu movie we watched, linked to the podcast episode about it. We didn’t create a ranking system, as that would have been disrespectful.
- Point Break: If you’ve never seen this, watch it immediately. It is ridiculous and super.
- Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: This one holds up pretty well. It is weirder and cheaper than you remember.
- Speed: The movie for which the descriptor “white-knuckled thrill ride” is most true. You remember it as a perfectly enjoyable action movie but you’ll end up saying “Oh SHIT!” at least once every ten minutes.
- Hardball: Ugh, this one is just awful. Don’t even watch it.
- My Own Private Idaho: Deeply strange. Hemal loved it and I disliked it but still want you to watch it.
- Man of Tai Chi: Do you like kung-fu movies? If so, you will probably like this one.
- John Wick: Stylish. Dark. Violent. America’s favorite murderous assassin.
- The Matrix: Twenty years later, this movie is still straight-up enthralling. Hemal didn’t like re-watching it, though she grudgingly gave up the props. I watched it twice in two days, despite having seen it ten times already, no joke.
- The Lake House: Hoo boy. The most divisive film on our list. Also probably the best episode of our Keanu podcast. Man, though, this movie is not good.