There are a multitude of reasons why the first “John Wick” movie was successful (and the “bullet-riddled blast” of a sequel, which opens this week, seems primed to do at least as well). Primarily, it was the lean, unapologetic action bona fides of stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch that took the slender B-movie premise and turned it into a sleek modern classic in the neo-noir genre. But there was also something — not to put too fine a point on it — excellent in the casting of Keanu Reeves as the unkillable, unstoppable, dog-loving title character. Reeves as a movie star comes pre-loaded with almost all the attributes Wick displays: he’s taciturn; his lifestyle is private, unshowy; he’s been accused of expressionlessness, unemotionality; he’s done some terrible things in his past (“Chain Reaction” springs to mind); he’s perennially underestimated; he’s a real-life PETA-supporting animal lover. But most importantly, Reeves is the ultimate survivor: His career has endured despite multiple assassination attempts.
Ever since 1989’s bonehead classic “Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure” cemented his “whoa, dude” persona in the critical consciousness, more or less every critique of every role has made reference to Ted “Theodore” Logan. Sometimes it’s overt, but more recently, it’s been oblique yet unmistakably there in that vague waft of surprise that Reeves is able to tie his shoelaces in the morning, let alone turn in an intelligent performance. Admirably, he hasn’t let this long history of ridicule deter him from amassing a surprisingly diverse and eclectic filmography, and unlike so many of his contemporaries (Johnny Depp, for example), it feels like, at 52, Reeves still has a lot more gas in the tank. Just these last few years, in addition to hitting his Reevesnaissance stride with “John Wick,” he’s worked with Nicolas Winding Refn (“The Neon Demon“) and Ana Lily Amirpour (“The Bad Batch“), voiced a cat named after himself (“Keanu“), spearheaded a pretty definitive documentary on the transition from film to digital (“Side By Side“), and made his feature directorial debut (“Man Of Tai Chi“). And already in 2017, he’s delivering genre thrills in “John Wick: Chapter 2” and has turned in a well-received performance in an indie-festival hit (Marti Noxon‘s Sundance movie “To The Bone“), and the year ain’t two months old yet. And just as an aside, of the seven film credits he’s amassed since the beginning of 2016, three have been for female directors.
So yes, Reeves has been bad in bad films in the past (“Johnny Mnemonic“). He’s also been pretty good in bad films (“The Lake House“) and pretty bad in good films (he’s inarguably terrible in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula“). But, as we’ll see in the 10 picks below, he’s also been plenty good in good films. So perhaps his career is something of a sine wave, and he has certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (appropriate reference, given his remarkably well-received run as “Hamlet” onstage in 1995). But he has weathered critical drubbings, internet meme infamy, massive success and abject failure while retaining a good portion of his otherworldly, Zen-like equanimity, and that is what makes Keanu Reeves a movie star. The debate around his acting ability has raged for so long that it has pretty much rendered itself irrelevant, like a storm that has blown itself out, and from the wreckage emerges the long, lanky, impossibly handsome Reeves, gun-toting, puppy-loving and stoically indestructible. Here are our 10 favorite Keanu Reeves films.
“River’s Edge” (1986)
Just a month after Rob Reiner‘s defining “kids go looking for a dead body” movie “Stand By Me” premiered, Tim Hunter‘s far grimmer “River’s Edge” played TIFF. It would go on to win the 1986 Independent Spirit award for Best Picture, but what it’s mostly known for now is giving Reeves his most eye-catching early role. Even so, while he’s nominally the hero of the film, he somewhat plays second banana in the scene-stealing stakes to Crispin Glover‘s twitchy Layne and to one of Dennis Hopper‘s least well-known but most archetypal “crazy old pervert” roles. The nihilist story of a group of teenage high-schoolers who respond mostly with apathy when one of their number, Samson, strangles his girlfriend because “she was talking shit,” it’s an impressively bleak look at a morally unmoored generation. Reeves’ Matt, along with Ione Skye‘s Clarissa, are the lone voices of reason as their consciences are awoken, however sluggishly, and they dare to defy Layne’s twisted code of loyalty that would see them all protect the increasingly psycho Samson from the consequences of the murder. It’s not only about a dissipated and aimless generation, though; it’s about the hardscrabble marginalized lives they and their families lead in this economically depressed town, where basic morality seems, like all luxuries, unaffordable.
“Point Break” (1991)
The surprise of the recent “Point Break” remake was not that it was dumb, but that it managed to be dumb and a whole heaping portion of not-fun. Kathryn Bigelow‘s original movie not only introduced the world to the idea of Keanu Reeves, action star, but it marked some sort of early ’90s high-water mark for sheer high-concept enjoyability. But we shouldn’t let our dislike of the dour retread lead us into overpraise, either. Bigelow’s “Point Break” is a quite spectacularly stupid film, only rescued from total disposability by her excellent action direction, and by Reeves at his most gorgeously dim-bulb sincere, playing the gloriously named Johnny Utah — “young, dumb and full of cum.” Bear in mind that to this point, Reeves had only ever really been a co-lead or an ensemble player, so “Point Break” was his first real leading-man role. Then again, a case could also be made for this character (a hotshot young FBI agent tasked with infiltrating a gang of surfer bank robbers led by philosophizing quasi-guru Patrick Swayze) being simply another version of his lovable lunk persona with a sharper haircut and a gun — a weapon that, in a moment beautifully homaged in Edgar Wright‘s “Hot Fuzz,” he gets to “fire up into the air while going ‘aaaaah!'” when he can’t shoot Swayze because he “loves him so much.” Even when they try to make ’em exactly like this, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.
“Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991)
You of course have the right to berate me for choosing the ‘Bill & Ted’ sequel over the original ‘Excellent Adventure‘, but then I also have the right to disbelieve you if you say you’ve watched them both recently and honestly don’t think ‘Bogus Journey’ is by far the better film. Reuniting Reeves’ defining, thick-but-goodhearted doofus Ted with Alex Winter‘s marginally more savvy Bill S. Preston Esquire, the sequel expands on the zany time-travel escapades of the first film. But this time the stakes are upped from the delivery of a high-school history presentation to the, erm, saving of the future utopia the two will create via their terrible band Wyld Stallyns, and a cover of a KISS track. Peter Hewitt‘s ‘Bogus Journey’ is certainly a more polished film than Stephen Herek‘s ‘Excellent Adventure,’ but where that can often mean the heart is lost, that’s not the case here, as the sequel is also more cock-eyed optimistic, and more wittily inventive, most famously riffing on “The Seventh Seal” in the scene where the heroes play Twister with Death (an amiable William Sadler). And if you’ve seen that and don’t always think of it when watching the Bergman masterpiece, congratulations, you are a better cinephile than I am.
“My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
There’s probably no treble punch that more accurately conveys the paradoxical quality of Reeves’ ambitions as an actor than his following up his bid for action-star cred in “Point Break” with the broad silliness of the ‘Bill and Ted’ sequel and then Gus Van Sant‘s self-consciously arty ‘Idaho’ all in the very same year. Also featuring Reeves teamed with a young blonde guy as they embark on a series of episodic adventures, “My Own Private Idaho,” sees Reeves paired with friend River Phoenix (RIP, still hurts), playing slumming street hustler Scott, the object of his best friend’s gay affections. It’s a film that teeters dangerously on the edge of pretension at times (especially during the posed “tableau” sex scenes), yet the performances are, especially in retrospect, almost heartbreakingly sincere. Phoenix comes out of it especially well as the narcoleptic, tragic Mike, and Udo Kier is typically Kierish as a john who hires Mike to dress as the mascot of a cleaning-products company. But Reeves is impressive in a less obvious way, even if the transition from Ted’s suburban dorkspeak to Scott’s Shakespearean argot, complete with baroque and anachronistic dialogue lifted straight from several of his plays, was just too easy a target for critics at the time to ignore. As the years have passed, however, ‘Idaho’ has emerged as, if not the very best film Reeves was ever in, then certainly one of the most interesting, which is also true for the patchy Van Sant.
The ’90s, for Reeves and for an entire generation of moviegoers, were marked by the actor’s emergence as an action star, with three big genre hits spanning the decade and crescendoing in terms of success and impact on his career. The middle one of these, “Speed,” directed by erstwhile DP Jan de Bont, is simply one of the all-time high points of the action genre, a lithe, witty script performed by two preternaturally appealing stars in Reeves and Sandra Bullock, ably backed up by Dennis Hopper (doing psycho crazy killer duties for the second time on this list), Jeff Daniels and a certain bus speedometer. It’s very possible that De Bont is on such flying form, and Graham Yost‘s screenplay (benefiting from an uncredited Joss Whedon rewrite) is so classically, beat-for-beat taut that it would have made a star of anyone who took the role of Jack Traven. And it’s certainly Reeves’ least idiosyncratic performance, the closest he’s ever got to straight-up Tom Cruise furrowed-brow heroics. But not only do Reeves and Bullock spark up genuinely delightful chemistry, the two of them give what could be an overly schematic movie (first act, lift; second act, bus; third act, subway) its warmth and soul. Reeves has claimed rather too many kudos for turning down “Speed 2: Cruise Control” — it did turn out to be a disaster, but no more so than his next few films “Johnny Mnemonic,” “A Walk In The Clouds” and “Chain Reaction.” But then, like that physics-defying bus, his career had gained enough momentum from “Speed” to carry him right over that gap in the freeway.