Much like his character in the John Wick films, Keanu Reeves is a man with very little to lose.
Often maligned for his lack of range as an actor, or dismissed as merely a vaguely goofy action star, every misstep that Reeves has taken throughout his career has come from an enviable ability to consistently take risks. Despite every effort to pigeonhole him, Keanu Reeves just won’t be told what he can and can’t do.
Born in Beirut to a showgirl and a geologist, Reeves is also a rabid fan of both The Two Ronnies and Bitcoin, proving that for every meme that dog(tar)s him, there are at least thirty more amazing ones yet to be created.
We’ve decided to take a look back on the legacy of an actor that no one has had a bad word to say about in the last forty years, which is really quite incredible. These aren’t all – by any means – Keanu’s best films, but all ten of them had a part to play in the evolution of his work, and in some cases cinema itself…
Permanent Record (1988)
Derided by some critics as a ‘movie of the week’ on release, Permanent Record was championed by some (including Roger Ebert) as one of the best films of that year – and looking back now it’s easy to see why.
The first act of the film centres on the character of David Sinclair (Alan Boyce) who is by all accounts a very popular and talented high school student. He’s in a band, he’s in charge of a bunch of stuff at school, his friends adore him and his family is a loving one. People look up to him to such an extent that when cracks in his happy-go-lucky demeanour start to show, those around him gloss over them completely, including his best friend Chris (Reeves).
Things then take a tragic turn when David suddenly commits suicide, leaving Chris to pick up the pieces and wonder why it happened. Initially imagining it all to be a terrible accident, Chris is left devastated when he finds a suicide note sent from David that sends him down a spiral of inner reflection (and outward recklessness).
Having spent the first half hour of the film performing as the breezy and stoneriffic actor we’ve met before, Reeves delivers an absolutely stunning performance in the last hour as he is forced into a new world in which not everything will end happily and in which sometimes there are no answers – no matter how hard we look for them.
One of only a very small number of films to shine a light on the issue of high-functioning depression and how difficult it is to notice signs of mental illness in someone who appears to ‘have everything’, Permanent Record doesn’t shy away from showing you the crippling fear of letting people down that even alpha personalities can often find themselves a slave to, or the hopelessness and torment that David’s friends and family experience when he decides to end it all.
As a piece of work, it’s still quite exceptional.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Although the humble phone box, along with the central characters’ ethos of being excellent to each other, seem to both be on their last legs, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is, even now, a very odd duck of a movie. Referencing everything from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to A Matter Of Life And Death, the film plays with all manner of ideas.
Peter Hewitt – who went on to helm, er, Thunderpants and Garfield – mashes everything together in his directorial debut, bringing the characters of Bill and Ted back together in this cheery sequel to face off against evil robot versions of themselves, a tyrant dead set on eradicating them from the future, and even Death himself.
Like Gremlins 2: The New Batch just before it, Bogus Journey paved the way for a spree of increasingly surreal, narratively experimental – and variably bankable – comedy sequels in the 90s. Wayne’s World 2, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Addams Family Values and Hot Shots: Part Deux were just some of the risks studios took on their comedy hits in the ensuing years, in no part thanks to the humble success of Reeves and Winters’ return to the roles of those simple-minded teens they helped become cultural icons.
Speed was not only writer Graham Yost’s first screenplay (he went on to write Hard Rain and Broken Arrow), it was celebrated Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont’s first time in the big chair, too. A young gentleman by the name of Joss Whedon also performed script doctoring duties on the film just a week before it started shooting (Reeves personally complained that Yost’s pre-doctored screenplay was too full of screwball comedy, so the irony isn’t lost on us there).
With a mid-range budget of $30 million and up-and-coming actress Sandra Bullock by his side, Keanu was to play SWAT officer Jack Traven in the most high concept of action flicks: there’s a bomb on a bus full of people, and if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour it’ll explode.
This was the film that cemented Reeves as an action star, and he approached it with a freshly shorn head and a longing to get involved in his own stunts as much as possible. It was also the film that took up Die Hard‘s mantle to kick-start a new wave of high concept action flicks in 90s Hollywood after making $350 million and change globally, with hundreds of pitches seemingly starting with “it’s like Speed…on an X!” until audiences could take no more of the madness.
The Devil Advocate (1997)
Based on Andrew Neiderman’s novel of the same name, The Devil’s Advocate has aged extremely well since its release in 1997.
Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a small-town lawyer who simply can’t lose. But when he makes the choice to pressure a molested child on the stand and manages to get his paedophile client released, his decision attracts the attention of his biological father – the Devil (Al Pacino). After all, it seems that Lomax is quite ready at this stage to break his code of morality and hit the big time by helping murderers and tax dodgers get away with it.
Taylor Hackford (or Mr. Helen Mirren as we call him ‘round these parts) approached the material with a very cool touch, building a world of evil and madness within the walls of a high-priced law firm in New York and inevitably asking the audience to decide if it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, complete with a fourth-wall-breaking final shot.
Filled with the kind of allusions and ethical questions you’d expect to find in a film that frequently references John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the messages of the piece are as important today as they were in 1997. In a world of victims ‘playing the victim card’, caring (or ‘virtue signalling’) ‘snowflakes’, post-truth and alternative facts, does it really matter if the decisions you make hurt people when fleeting fame and incredible power are up for grabs?
The Gift (2000)
2000 was the year Reeves decided to play it cruel, picking up roles as a serial killer in the James Spader-starring The Watcher (a film so terrible it remains the only one I’ve fallen asleep watching in the cinema to this day) and also in The Gift, a welcome return to kinda-horror for Sam Raimi at the time.
Written by Billy Bob Thornton, and based on the psychic experiences of his own mother (yep), Keanu’s part is one of a small town wife beater and general prick who is soon suspected of murdering the not-entirely-pleasant – but socially valued – Katie Holmes, while her apparently devastated husband (Greg Kinnear) enlists the help of local psychic Cate Blanchett to venture into the netherworld for answers.
At the time, it was a massive jolt to see Reeves playing a nasty character, and one that was so one-dimensionally evil that audiences could easily buy him as the film’s potential lady killer. Indeed, the actor has rarely chosen to reprise the abject horribleness he displayed in both roles, but memorably brought a little of it back in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon last year, where it had lost none of the impact we sustain from seeing our normally heroic and lovable Keanu playing someone truly awful.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Sci-fi action classic The Matrix was a surprise hit on release in 1999 and talk was soon buzzing of a potential sequel. The end of the first film had certainly left things open for one, and audiences were extremely curious to find out exactly where the story of Neo and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar would go next.
But when the follow up film finally arrived in 2003, no one knew quite what to think.
Stuffed with the kind of outlandish, overly silly, FMV-esque action sequences that inspired squeals and yawns in equal measure from audiences, and culminating with Reeves’ Jesus figure Neo browsing a FAQ with, y’know, God, basically, The Matrix Reloaded was the sequel whose entire content no one was expecting.
Whether you loved it, loathed it, or were just downright confused with the direction the whole thing was heading in, the film proved to studios that they could realistically fast track CG-heavy, trashy-smashy sci-fi action sequels with huge budgets and still make a mint – no matter how convoluted the plot or how visually confusing they might be.
Unrelated: Transformers 5 is out soon.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)
Whether he’s conscious of it or not, Reeves has often been drawn to sci-fi, and in 2008 little-known director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) was handed the keys to the kingdom when he signed on to helm The Day The Earth Stood Still. Derrickson was in charge of bringing the classic sci-fi story, starring a hot-off-The Lake House Reeves, back to life, and he had an $80 million budget to play with – so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, it could end up being boring, as it turns out. Sadly, the film didn’t even make its budget back domestically and clawed a lot its profit from foreign markets, where filmgoers were seemingly less picky about the pacing of their sci-fi blockbusters.
Reeves delivers a perfectly fine performance as Klaatu, the alien sent to save Earth from itself, but mostly the film serves to remind us that the actor will tend to gravitate toward breakout directors near the very start of their careers, whether it be Gus Van Sant with My Own Private Idaho, Jan de Bont with Speed, The Wachowskis with The Matrix, Chad Stahelski with John Wick, or Derrickson with this remake.
John Wick (2014)
When John Wick first appeared in 2014, no one knew whether to expect a Matrix or a Johnny Mnemonic. What we ended up with was neither. A heady action mix of classically stylish revenge film influences like Point Blank and Oldboy, the directorial debut of stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch turned out to be the kind of delicious, non-stop carnage you can’t help but gleefully indulge.
Reeves plays the titular character of John Wick, a retired hitman who hits the warpath in a major way after a casual and brutal home invasion sees his puppy murdered by whooping thugs, and on some level the audience is not only outraged that this horrific act has been committed on Mr Wick, but also on Keanu himself, such is the strength of good feeling for the man.
With John Wick 2 out this year and John Wick 3 possibly on the horizon, Reeves has shown time and again that he can help create a franchise out of just about anything and we’ll keep happily buying tickets.
One for John Wick 3, please.
Deep Web (2015)
Deep Web, a documentary directed by long-time Reeves cohort Alex Winter, doesn’t star Keanu Reeves, but his lilting and intoxicating narration brings a welcome ease to the tricky information that unfolds throughout.
The film chronicles the events that led to the arrest and prosecution of Ross Ulbricht, the so-called mastermind behind dark web drug trafficking site Silk Road, and at a crisp 90 minutes it does an excellent job of it, too.
From the politics surrounding Ulbricht’s trial, to the dubious means government agencies went to when securing his charges, Deep Web acts as a very neat primer for those who wonder just how libertarian ideologies find a natural home online, and also serves as a cinematic building block – along with other efforts like Citizenfour and The Internet’s Own Boy – in a world made increasingly more complex by the digital age.
Knock Knock (2015)
Knock Knock is an over-the-top cautionary tale, played out inside a microcosm of nearly every awful thing men might fear that beautiful and dangerous women could inflict on their lives, should they submit to their desires.
Reeves plays the film’s main character Evan, a devoted father and husband who hasn’t lost touch with his inner teen. He collects vinyl, he smokes pot when his family are out of the way, and he can’t help but give in to temptation when two very young girls appear at his door one rainy night, oozing sex and offering ‘free pizza’ in the form of their nubile, overly-consenting bodies.
Deliberately paced, littered with Hitchcockian nods and complete with a balls-to-the-wall performance by Reeves, the film falls together proficiently and seeks to offer the director – the oft-derided Eli Roth – a flash of something he hadn’t been granted outside of his small-but-dedicated horror base: a reluctant nod of respect as a filmmaker. He got it, but has so far failed to capitalise (and whether he will do so in the future is anyone’s guess).
Nevertheless, Reeves’ turn in Knock Knock unequivocally proves that he can effortlessly carry a straight horror flick with flair. It still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and Roth haters are sure to find a reason to remain steadfast, but this was an extremely underrated turn from Keanu and the film is likely to find a cult audience in the future.