This month one of Keanu Reeves’ most famous movies, The Matrix, turns 20 years old. We thought hey – who not use the occasion to reflect on the actor’s best roles? Sarah Ward picks nothin’ but A grade Keanu.
His name means cool breeze over the mountains. Whether he’s playing a slacker, getting serious or jumping into action-hero mode, Keanu Reeves always lives up to his moniker. He’s a refreshing presence who sweeps in, aims high and makes an impact — and although he’s had his ebbs and flows, rare is the movie that isn’t improved by his involvement.
Nearly 35 years since his first big-screen role, Keanu has almost done it all — and amassed a versatile list of credits. Quirky comedies, classic adaptations, Christmas flicks, sci-fi fizzers, legal dramas and lurid thrillers sit side-by-side on his resume, next to brooding indies, rousing sports films, rom-coms, high-concept romances, many a martial arts move, plenty of saviour figures and even Buddha. And that time he voiced a cat with his same name.
Some are great. Some definitely aren’t. But for the past two decades, one trilogy has defined much of Keanu’s career. In The Matrix and its two sequels, Keanu was literally ‘the one’. With the science fiction game-changer turning 20 this month, we’ve revisited his filmography and picked his standout roles.
Two buddies time travel through history to avoid flunking school. Then they visit the afterlife — and if they’re unsuccessful, they’ll never become world-changing rock stars. Given the concept, the Bill and Ted movies were either going to hit the mark or miss them, and the goofiness of Keanu and his co-star Alex Winter play a considerable part in their success. Keanu unleashed his comic side in Parenthood and I Love You to Death around the same time, but there’s a reason that fans have been eagerly awaiting a third Bill and Ted movie for decades.
Thanks to sinewy direction from Kathryn Bigelow, a slick yet smart heist story, and the spot-on casting of Keanu opposite Patrick Swayze, Point Break is a perfect action film. Keanu’s FBI agent Johnny Utah and his partner (Gary Busey) might garner laughs when they connect bank robbing and surfing, but the film couldn’t fare better at making the same leap. There’s thoughtfulness to Keanu’s take on Johnny, who segues from fighting crime to riding waves with convincing dexterity. There’s sensitivity to the rapport with Swayze, and gung-ho looseness to the entire movie too. Even when Point Break hits recognisable action marks, it’s never standard — and it’s endlessly rewatchable.
In a single year, Keanu added Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Point Break and this Shakespearean-influenced road movie to his resume. The late, great River Phoenix is devastating as My Own Private Idaho’s narcoleptic hustler who just wants a place to belong, and Keanu is similarly stellar as his rich kid pal slumming it on the streets. Together, with help from writer/director Gus Van Sant, they give cinema one of its most affecting and unique depictions of drifting through life. If events had been different, what a pair Keanu and Phoenix could’ve made if they’d teamed up regularly.
On the page and on the screen, the role of Jonathan Harker is one of Dracula’s most difficult. He’s a man of law thrust into the supernatural, seduced by undead brides and nearly losing his sanity as a result — all while watching his vampire client try to steal his wife-to-be. Keanu already had period film experience thanks to Dangerous Liaisons, but there’s a sense of bewilderment to his performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula that proves an exceptional fit for the part.
While Point Break showcased Keanu in soulful action mode, Speed is its suspenseful, energetic sibling. Taut, tense and frenetic as it charts an LA bomb squad specialist’s pursuit of an explosives-wielding tormenter, Jan de Bont’s thriller is also impressive in the character stakes. Keanu’s Jack Travern, Dennis Hopper’s nefarious villain and Sandra Bullock’s unlikely bus driver never feel like mere cogs in a high-octane plot, although Speed delivers ample expertly executed action antics.
If Rosemary’s Baby swapped a housewife for a lawyer, a demonic offspring for a wicked dad, and its masterful restraint for the exact opposite, The Devil’s Advocate would’ve been the result. Still, this supernatural thriller has more than a few charms when it’s not plunging into overblown territory, including when Keanu holds his own with a gleeful Al Pacino. Moral conflict is something that Keanu conveys often, expresses well, and lets flicker compellingly across his brow.
It’s almost disappointing that the Wachowskis gave The Matrix two sequels. The original sci-fi spectacle works so well as it is, rendering the less engaging The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions superfluous. But while the follow-ups lacked the same energy, the entire franchise’s trip down the virtual rabbit hole boasts a commandingly pared-back performance by Keanu as Neo: the prophesied key to saving humanity from their dystopian enslavement by machines, and a dazzling sight to behold in fast-paced fight scenes.
Richard Linklater’s interpolated rotoscope-animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel is as vivid and hallucinatory as it needed to be, and as smart and intoxicating as well. A killer style, a drug-addled story and a near-futuristic setting make for a potent combination. And while all of the above makes the biggest impact, the movie wouldn’t have been the same without Keanu as an undercover agent-turned-addict.
Like Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan, Johnny Utah and Neo, John Wick feels like a role Keanu was born to play. The no-nonsense assassin with a soft spot for cute canines blasted his way through the highly enjoyable John Wick, did it all again in the sequel, and returns for a third run this year. It helps that Keanu is working with a director keenly attuned to his every move, with Chad Stahelski doing his stunts in The Matrix, The Replacements, The Gift, Thumbsucker and Constantine, and choreographing the martial arts for the Keanu-directed Man of Tai Chi.
The only reason that Destination Wedding exists its to re-team Keanu with his Bram Stoker’s Dracula bride (and A Scanner Darkly and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee co-star) Winona Ryder. That, and to place them at another set of nuptials, although their characters aren’t tying the knot this time around. Films have been made for flimsier reasons, and the pair’s easy chemistry — even playing misanthropic strangers bundled together at an event neither wants to attend, and seething with animosity about it — makes their work in this caustic rom-com a delight.