Movies

How do we prove Keanu Reeves is the greatest action star in Hollywood history?

Attempt #1

Even if you sit down to watch a Keanu Reeves movie with the express intent of watching Keanu Reeves, of noticing all the incisive details of performance and presence that make Keanu Reeves so, well, Keanu Reeves, of jotting down those details in your Professional Reporter’s Notebook ™ and using them to create a moving and definitive portrait of a man, Keanu Reeves, you intend to claim is The Greatest Action Hero in Hollywood History, you will fail.

You will fail even if you are a salaried employee at a national newspaper in a mid-sized country, a mid-sized country that probably punches below its weight culturally, but isn’t a backwater exactly, the same mid-sized country, not incidentally, that Keanu Reeves is, at least, sort of from, the one that gave him his strange, placeless accent and his air of being from nowhere at all. You will fail even if you are a Professional Noticer of Detail™, a person, in other words, who comes equipped with what you would imagine to be the precise skills necessary to mine the telling details of craft from, say, Speed (1994).

You will fail.


Reeves in The Matrix.

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You will fail to make the notes necessary to mount your argument. You will fail, eventually, to take notes at all. You will sink instead into your futon, the one caked in a cat’s generation of fur overlaid with a toddler’s potpourri of Play-Doh and liquid prunes, and you will watch. And as you watch, you will catch yourself and you will realize that you have failed.

You will fail, reader. You will fail. But in that failure you will find success. For you will come to realize that Keanu Reeves defies detail. He simply exists. And in that existence is a self-evident truth: Keanu Reeves is the Greatest Action Hero in Hollywood History.

Your failure is telling you why.

Attempt #2

Let us start again with a proposition: According to GQ, “Every generation gets its own Keanu Reeves, except every generation’s Keanu Reeves is this Keanu Reeves.”

He has aged. The video evidence on that is clear. And yet, he remains the same.

The Keanu Reeves who appeared recently on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert — the one with the pitted cheeks and the greying, chaotic beard — is somehow identical, in essence if not appearance, to the impossibly young Keanu Reeves of Speed.

That Reeves has the perfect skin of youth and a haircut — about a half-inch clipped evenly across his skull — that only the beautiful and the frightening can ever pull off. Reeves was beautiful, too. Not handsome, beautiful. When almost shaved bald, he had the look of a young Sinead O’Connor, the one forever blinking away tears in the video for “Nothing Compares 2 You.”


Sandra Bullock and Reeves in Speed.

20th Century Fox

He isn’t that anymore. With his aging dad-rock hair and his perpetually sad eyes — the ones that launched a thousand memes — he’s more craggy than beautiful today. But this Keanu Reeves is still that Keanu Reeves. Something beyond the physical has remained the same.

You can imagine the younger version, at a house party, away from the main crowd, in the room with all the books, lightly high on pot he grew himself, giving the same answer to Colbert’s final question that the current one did last week.

“What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”

In answer, Reeves inhaled sharply through his teeth then blew out a long breath through pursed lips. He folded his hands, kept his body squared then turned his head to Colbert. “I know that the ones who love us,” he said, with deep sincerity, “will miss us.”

Colbert whispered a quiet “wow.”

Attempt #3

Keanu Reeves is the Greatest Action Hero in Hollywood History because he has aged into an affect that earlier critics mistook for stupidity or blankness. What he is, and always has been, is sincere. It’s what makes his deeply improbable roster of action hits work.

Reeves has made a generational smash out of at least four of the dumbest ideas ever proposed in American cinema. The elevator pitches for Point Break, Speed and The Matrix — the Holy Trinity of 1990s Keanu — all read like they were reconstructed at random from the waste basket below a shredder in an all-boy’s middle school creative writing class. An FBI agent named Johnny Utah has to infiltrate a band of rogue surfers who rob banks in U.S. president masks? There’s a bomb on the bus and it’s going to explode if we ever slow down? We’re living in the internet?

Those are all really dumb! And yet, Keanu doesn’t just make them work. He makes them last. And he does it, more than anything else, with sincerity.


Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break.

20th Century Fox

Reeves appears in each of those movies to be just as confused by the premise as the audience. He is the physical manifestation of an audible “whoa.” Unlike his rivals for the all-time action crown — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Cruise, Jean Claude Van Damme — Reeves has always been the hero-as-audience stand in. His genuine air of befuddlement is what makes those unlikely worlds work. With each eyes-squinting, open-mouthed gasp, Reeves is telling the audience, “I get it. This is weird. But stay with me.”

And we do.

He does the same in the John Wick series, the third instalment of which opens on Friday. In the first film, Wick, a retired assassin played by Reeves, loses his wife to natural causes. She leaves him a puppy, which a Russian gangster murders, spurring a two-hour killing spree. That’s not the elevator pitch. That’s basically the whole script. And yet, with Reeves, it works.

This is only true because Reeves played the part completely straight. Even as he’s storming through the stylized New York streets, killing even more people in ever more elaborate ways, he’s giving off an air of slight bafflement. He can’t quite believe where he’s found himself. He’s operating in a daze.

Attempt #4

“That daze is one of the things I really love about what you do,” the writer Dennis Cooper told Reeves in a long interview published in 1990, before Reeves was established as an action star. For years, that daze was written off as bad acting. It’s why, even today, it’s hard to sit down with one of his action films and really focus on him. He’s always clearing the floor for his more showy co-stars — Dennis Hopper in Speed, Willem Dafoe in John Wick. As an actor, he’s generous. That’s part of it. But that generosity extends to the audience, too. It’s what separates him from other action stars. It’s what makes him the best. It’s why we’re only realizing it now.

Keanu Reeves is an action hero who doesn’t need to be an alpha. Think about how unusual that is. He’s a star who makes hits that aren’t all about him. That’s why the details — of performance and delivery — don’t matter. That’s why analysis is beside the point. Unlike any other action star, Keanu Reeves can kill people on screen for two hours and still somehow give off an air of concern. He’s always inviting the audience in. “Are you watching?” he’s asking. “This is cool, right?” And with him, it always is.

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