“The Matrix” (1999)
With recent world events sending everyone scrambling for dystopian comparison points, it’s not surprising that many people pointed to the Wachowskis‘ seminal sci-fi, in which reality is a narcotic dream peddled to humanity by machine overlords with only the literally “woke” few being able to spearhead a resistance. But if anything, “The Matrix” has kind of lost relevance recently: It’s hard to believe smart machines would cook up this enraging a version of the world as a means to keep the population subdued, though then again, what is it Agent Smith says about them having made the first version a paradise, only for humanity to reject it? As the Messianic Neo, Reeves is possibly more perfectly cast than he can ever hope to be again: It’s a role that capitalizes on his intensely telegenic, heroic features as well as his oddness. There is always something alien about Reeves (which makes the turgid awfulness of “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” in which he plays an actual alien, even more distressing) and “The Matrix” lets him fly that freak flag yet still emerge as, essentially, a superhero. It’s for exactly that reason that the first film is so satisfying, and the follow-ups, which bring Neo progressively down to earth despite increasingly airless CG, are so disappointing.
Looking back, Francis Lawrence‘s “Constantine” may have been one of the opening salvos in the ongoing tripartite comic-books-fans vs. filmgoers vs. critics wars. Received, on aggregate, at a cooler-than-lukewarm temperature by critics (Roger Ebert subsequently added it to his “most hated” films list), and utterly scorned by fans of the “Hellblazer” source material for everything from the lead character’s hair color (“He’s supposed to be blonde!”) to his moral motivations, the film opened weakly (beaten by “Hitch“‘s second weekend — ouch) and recouped less than its budget. So it certainly had all the hallmarks of an all-out turkey. But “Constantine,” for anyone not wedded to some idea of its authenticity, is also a blast, a baroquely inventive theological twist on the comic-book formula, that starts with an all-time-great movie car crash, is crammed with characterful supporting roles for Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare (who we’re told is awesome in the new ‘John Wick’), Shia LaBeouf and Rachel Weisz, and showcases Reeves’ largely untapped facility for hard-bitten, cynical wit. Appropriately, for such an irony-laden movie, this American transposition of a supposedly British character ended up coining it overseas, with the film’s $155m foreign take landing it squarely back in “decent-sized hit” territory, perhaps as a final fuck-you finger to the domestic haterz.
“A Scanner Darkly” (2006)
As a frequently adapted sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick has been relatively well served by the big screen, especially if you compare him to the likes of Frank Herbert or Isaac Asimov, but it’s possible that the very best Dick adaptation — or at least the one that feels closest to the spirit of reading one of his itchily hallucinogenic books — is among the smallest. Richard Linklater‘s “A Scanner Darkly” has all the hallmarks of an experimental doodle: Its rotoscoped animation style, de-glammed ensemble cast and shredded, confusing narrative mean it was never going to challenge “Star Wars” in terms of mainstream appeal. But it’s also much more engaging and lively than the kind of palate-cleanser test run it might have seemed at first, and it’s anchored by one of Reeves’ best performances. Wags could suggest that the rotoscoping, which renders faces into graphic, almost pop-art masks, is useful for masking inexpressivity (“woodenness” being a complaint leveled against Reeves with monotonous regularity), but whatever the reason, he works really well here in the role of an undercover cop who ends up ordered to spy on himself after he’s sent to infiltrate a gang of junkies hooked on the psychotropic substance D. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder are excellent, too, but it’s Reeves distinctive aura of paranoiac zen that anchors the whole trippy endeavor.
“The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee” (2009)
We can’t imagine what it is about woman director Rebecca Miller that her movies, which are often focussed on women’s experiences and feature strong central performances from women, are so frequently, undeservingly dismissed, but it happened again last year with the delightful “Maggie’s Plan.” She’s probably used to it by now, though, as her 2009 film “The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee” fared perhaps even worse, tarred with the word “melodrama” as though it were a dirty concept. It’s not a flawless film, to be sure, but Robin Wright and Blake Lively both are terrific as the titular Pippa at different stages of her life, with Wright especially strong in her portrayal of a woman in the throes of a minor breakdown, a performance that is no less devastating for being so ruthlessly internalized and suppressed. Reeves is cast as Wright’s Jesus-tattooed, extra-marital love interest, but in contrast to the eye-candy/boy-toy function he fulfills in, say, “Something’s Gotta Give,” here he’s written as a character with his own fucked-up psychology, who, in one of the weirdest seductions ever, gets Pippa into bed by first insisting on praying for her comatose husband Herb (Alan Arkin). There are hinky things about the film (sorry, Winona), but with relatively little screen time, Reeves makes the nascent affair a touchingly believable one, without ever trying to steal the focus from Wright, reminding us once again that, as well as movie star, Reeves can be a genuinely generous supporting character.
“John Wick” (2014)
The 2010s has seen Reeves, for the first time in his career, start to diversify beyond acting roles, becoming more active as a producer (on “Henry’s Crime,” then on doc “Side By Side“) and making a creditable directorial debut on “Man Of Tai Chi,” before attempting a big-budget comeback with Carl Rinsch‘s “47 Ronin.” But neither ‘Ronin” nor ‘Tai Chi’ nor “Henry’s Crime” even made their budgets back, and it would be left to the least likely-sounding of his early 2010s titles to launch the Reevesnaissance in full. Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who had both previously worked as stunt coordinators and supervisors, “John Wick” exudes the kind of grimy gloss that makes it feel considered and noirish, rather than just a slapped-together genre B-movie. And at the heart of it all was Reeves, more relaxed, commanding and charismatic than perhaps we’ve ever seen him, seemingly glorying in his character’s lack of chat, slender motivation (they killed the dog!), and blunt gun-fu physicality. Tightly coiled and exceptionally well-choreographed, rather than ending up rubbing shoulders with identikit Nic Cage paycheck thrillers, or lumbering Liam Neeson vehicles in which he’s eternally rescuing his womenfolk, “John Wick” has invited not entirely unmerited comparisons with “Point Blank” and “Le Samourai“ as a kind of neo-noir urban western, with Reeves as the Man With No Name, except he has a name: It’s John Wick.
The documentary “Side By Side,” which Reeves spearheaded and shepherds as the off-camera interviewer of a wide range of filmmakers, is still the best film made about the transition to digital, and will, in the future, be a kind of snapshot of that particular upheaval, even though its relevance has necessarily waned with digital’s victory over analog formats. He’s also good as the abusive husband in Sam Raimi‘s “The Gift,” and while early roles in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “I Love You To Death,” “Parenthood” and Mike Mills‘ “Thumbsucker” didn’t feel big enough to merit full write-ups, he’s good in all four. He’s solid enough in “The Devil’s Advocate,” though he always appears in danger of being mistaken for the scenery by Al Pacino and chewed on accordingly. Finally, it’s probably just me, but I have a soft spot for him in “Tune In Tomorrow” aka “Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter,” and also in David Ayer‘s not-bad-but-after-watching-“Suicide Squad“-AMAZING “Street Kings.” Anything I’ve missed? Call it out below, I’ll be over here sadly eating a sandwich in his honor.