The Evolution of Keanu Reeves, Action Icon
As John Wick blows up the box office for the third time, we take a look back at how most excellent dude Keanu Reeves became an action movie legend.
With John Wick Chapter 3 fueling ticket sales everywhere, and a fourth entry in the series already confirmed for 2021, Keanu Reeves is now one of the world’s most bankable action stars. The relentless display of audacious headshots and stabbings that define Wick’s world may seem at odds with the zen-like calm of its lead actor, but Keanu’s action bona fides go back almost 30 years. Here’s our guide to the essential Keanu Reeves movies for adrenaline junkies…
Point Break (1991)
With Point Break now rightly lauded as an action classic, Reeves was still seen as an amiable airheaded comedy dude when this wave-riding thriller came along. Keanu stars as the fantastically named Johnny Utah, a hot-headed FBI agent sent undercover to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing surfers. Like so many undercover stories before and since, Utah gets in too deep and starts to sympathize with the chilled leader of the gang who mixes armed felonies with metaphysical monologues about the ocean. The stage is set for a film that is both endearingly earnest and absolutely insane, and director Kathryn Bigelow nails the perfect level of macho energy while subtly raising an eyebrow at the antics of her topless bro anti-heroes.
If Point Break saw Reeves enter the action genre while still keeping one foot in the comfortable terrain of shaggy-haired soulful youth, Speed saw him harden up his act to rival the likes of Arnie, Sly and Bruce. Directed by Jan de Bont, who cut his teeth as cinematographer on Die Hard, this high concept blockbuster has a buzzcut-sporting Reeves as stoic LAPD officer Jack Traven, pitting his wits against Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber who has wired a city bus to explode if it dips under 50mph. With Sandra Bullock as the hapless civilian in the driving seat, and a series of stunts, situations and twists that still land to this day, the movie Homer Simpson remembers as “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” remains one of the best post-Die Hard action classics.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
While Reeves filled the years between Point Break and Speed with offbeat indie dramas like My Own Private Idaho and Little Buddha, he jumped from Speed straight into another high concept action flick. As weird as its title suggests, Johnny Mnemonic was written by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson and found Reeves playing the title character; a futuristic courier who smuggles illegal data on a hard drive inside his head. Yes, he’s basically a life-sized Keanu USB stick. The Yakuza want what’s in his brain, and a dizzying pursuit follows involving memorable cameos from Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins, Ice T and Japanese movie legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. There’s also a psychic dolphin. Because of course there is.
Chain Reaction (1996)
Not every swing is a hit, and so it proved with Keanu’s fourth action flick of the 1990s. This rather generic mid-level blockbuster had a miscast Reeves as scientist Eddie Kasalivich, who has invented a revolutionary new process for extracting hydrogen from water, thus creating a near infinite source of energy. Naturally, sinister forces led by his former mentor (Morgan Freeman) want to get it, and Eddie goes on the run with lab partner Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz). It’s a serviceable chase movie, solidly directed by Andrew Davis who did the same thing much better with The Fugitive only a few years earlier. However, it’s a strangely vanilla entry in the action canon for Reeves, whose offbeat sensibilities were already well established. Of course, those sensibilities were about to change cinema forever...
The Matrix (1999)
It’s easy to forget, now that its style and imagery have been so fully absorbed into pop culture, just what an unlikely blockbuster The Matrix was back in 1999. This was the year of Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Mummy and the small matter of The Phantom Menace-the first new Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. That a visually dazzling and philosophically provocative R-rated sci-fi movie with no track record dominated the conversation at the end of the year is nothing short of miraculous. Reeves, of course, anchors the whole enterprise as Thomas Anderson, aka Neo, a hacker who discovers that “reality” is a computer simulation designed to keep humanity compliant while machines use our bodies as batteries in the dystopian real world. With show-stopping “bullet time” special effects and acrobatic fight scenes from martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, The Matrix conclusively ended the reign of the All-American muscle man heroes that had dominated action cinema since the 80s, and brought Asian flair to the Hollywood blockbuster.
After two Matrix sequels, which divided audiences with their increasingly esoteric philosophy, CGI-assisted mayhem and poor storytelling, Reeves’ next action entry was this noir-tinged supernatural thriller based on the Hellblazer comic books from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Fans were less than happy at Reeves making the acerbic British character into a mournful American, but with a focus on surreal demonic imagery and scene-stealing cameos of Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare as the archangel Gabriel and Lucifer himself, the pros outweigh the cons, and by the time Reeves takes on the forces of Hell using a crucifix shotgun all but the most dedicated naysayer was on board. For what it’s worth, Reeves himself has always said this is one of his personal favorites.
47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Keanu ducked out of action movies for a long time following Constantine, but returned to the genre hard in 2013 with a double whammy of martial arts infused movies. 47 Ronin was the bigger, glossier prospect - a $175m studio blockbuster inspired by a Japanese folktale about disgraced samurai battling supernatural enemies. The resulting genre stew failed to entice US audiences however, and has gone down in the record books as one of Hollywood’s costliest flops. Thankfully, Reeves had another project up his sleeve - Man of Tai Chi, a back-to-basics martial arts thriller about a young fighter lured into an underground tournament. Tapping into the love of martial arts he had kindled on The Matrix, Reeves not only co-starred in the film as the villain but also directed it, to date his only turn behind the camera. Given what came next, this refocusing on traditional martial arts now makes a lot more sense...
John Wick (2014)
Just as The Matrix came out of nowhere and electrified action fans, so too did John Wick when he blasted onto screens five years ago. The connections don’t end there - the Wick series is the brainchild of Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman who was Keanu’s double on The Matrix series and Constantine. Together they created this new action icon, a legendary assassin who is yanked out of retirement by a Russian mobster’s son stealing his car and, most unforgivably, killing his puppy. Cue fast-paced, close quarters action scenes packed with brutality and humor, and a rapidly expanding mythos that rivals Harry Potter with its secret societies and hidden locations, which is all bound by arcane laws. Almost 30 years since he first shot his gun in the air and went “Aaaargh!” in Point Break, has Keanu returned to his throne as an action movie legend? In the immortal words of Mr Wick himself, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back”.