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Why Keanu Reeves is a perfect action star

Vox.com logo Vox.com 2/14/2017 Peter Suderman

© Provided by Vox.com

Not all films understand how to utilize the actor’s inherent blankness. Those that do benefit greatly.

It’s hard to imagine the John Wick movies without Keanu Reeves. The franchise, perhaps the best thing to happen to action cinema this decade, is built on scene after scene of exquisitely choreographed carnage, but it’s not really about bloodshed. With its fanciful mood lighting and tap-dance rhythms, the films sometimes seem more like musicals than action movies, the various henchmen and assassins that make up the cast more like dancers than dealers of death.

Even more than its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 plays like a disco of violence, a ferociously stylish examination of the human form in motion. And at the center of it all is Reeves: He’s the film’s lead dancer, the locus of its action, and he moves through it with the lithe and lively grace of someone trained in ballet. The sequel is an arch, artsy exercise in action-movie formalism, and Reeves is what gives it human form.

This may come off hyperbolic, or flat-out inaccurate, to those who don’t see Reeves as a great screen actor. And granted, his performance style doesn’t capture the tiny nuances of human reactions that are usually associated with great acting; he’s often characterized as a big-screen blank, and that’s not an entirely faulty statement.

But while it’s not wrong to label Reeves a blank, it’s also not enough. For nearly three decades, Reeves has proven himself one of Hollywood’s most durable and entertaining action stars, and the John Wick films show why: His total physical commitment to his action roles makes him a perfect avatar for the visions of ambitious action directors. At his very best, he becomes inseparable from the cinematic visions he embodies ... 

Reeves embraces his material, no matter how silly, on its own terms Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - 1989 Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves © Orion/Rex Shutterstock Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - 1989 Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves

Reeves didn’t start out as an action star. He first broke out in the late 1980s in roles in Ron Howard’s Parenthood and especially the memorably silly sci-fi comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a kind of absurdist YA empowerment story about two teenage headbangers who find out that their music will eventually save the world. Bill & Ted cast Reeves as a dim but lovably bodacious bro who said “dude” a lot and lived for good times and good vibes. The role was as iconic as it was silly, establishing Reeves as an avatar of genial, mind-blown empty-headedness.

It’s lowbrow stuff, for sure, but looking back, what’s remarkable is how fully Reeves buys into the silliness. There’s no ironic distance between him and the character — and, maybe even more importantly, given how thin the character is, there’s no distance between Reeves and the concept. His performance doesn’t seem to question or criticize the role. He doesn’t try to elevate himself. He just goes with the flow, embracing the sublime goofiness of it all on its own terms.

The first Bill & Ted spawned an even sillier sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. It’s not a great movie, but it’s appealingly dim, and Reeves goes for broke. There’s a telling moment in which the title characters meet evil robot versions of themselves. This, of course, requires Reeves to play two different versions of Ted, and Reeves offers the same level of epic nonjudgmental commitment to both:

That same scene also demonstrates Reeves’s broad, physical approach to acting. Screen actors, especially big stars, tend to focus on subtle facial expressions. Reeves, in contrast, acts with his shoulders, his arms, with the way he twists his neck and swings his hips. Watch the way his robot Ted barrels in through the door, shoulder first, and the way that real Ted later shows his uncertainty about the situation, even in a close up shot, by shrugging his shoulders and shifting around wildly on his feet, making big movements within the confines of the tight frame. Even then, Reeves was a whole-body performer.

Reeves isn’t a blank, he’s a template Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah in Point Break © Provided by Vox.com Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah in Point Break

In 1991, Reeves stepped into his first big action movie role with Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. This is where the promise of Reeves as an action star really starts to show.

Like Bill & Ted, Point Break casts Reeves as an amiable West Coast bro, albeit one with a little more intensity. He plays Johnny Utah, an FBI rookie who goes undercover as a surfer in order to catch a gang of bank robbers, led by Patrick Swayze, who serves as their spiritual guru.

But despite the somewhat contrived premise, there’s nothing silly about the movie. Point Break is a lean, ferocious action thriller, and Bigelow takes the action sequences extremely seriously (a late-film bank robbery committed by men wearing president masks is one of the genre’s defining set pieces). Bigelow’s commitment to capturing the adrenal rush of both violence and natural danger makes Point Break one of the most straightforwardly exciting movies of the last 30 years.

Point Break is also a sly interrogation of big-screen masculine archetypes that pits Reeves against Swayze, another handsome, intensely physical male movie star. Reeves’s young cop doesn’t have much in the way of personality — he’s confident but shallow and not particularly introspective — and that’s the point. Bigelow contrasts Reeves’ empty bravado with Swayze’s willingness to plumb his own spiritual depths, but ends up suggesting that they are both deluded by their own boundless confidence. Reeves sinks into the role just as Utah sinks into the surfer lifestyle, allowing Bigelow to use his natural blankness as an actor. As it turns out, he makes an excellent fit for an action movie that takes a critical look at male self-awareness.

What Bigelow figured out was that Reeves is a blank, yes, but he’s not a void. Instead, he’s a template. He doesn’t inhabit his roles; the visions of the movies he’s in come to inhabit him. Used wisely, he’s an elegant vehicle for the visions of others.

That’s a big part of why Speed works as well as it does. Released three years after Point Blank, it’s set mostly on a city bus that is rigged to explode if it drops below 50 miles per hour. It’s one of the earliest — and best — examples of the Die Hard on a [fill in the blank] phenomenon, which is probably a result of the fact that it was directed by Die Hard cinematographer Jan de Bont.

Like Point Break, Speed casts Reeves as a cocksure young cop, but this time there’s no ironic layer to the swagger. It’s an uncomplicated role in an uncomplicated movie. Which is fine, because at its piston-pounding core, Speed is just an extended string of vehicular action setpieces, with Reeves in the driver's seat. Watch as he dangles himself precariously down an elevator shaft! Climbs from a speeding car to a speeding bus! Inches himself along the top of a speeding train!

As always, he is most effective as a body in motion. Indeed, it is Reeves, not the speeding bus, who is the most interesting and important vehicle on the screen; the movie works in part because he collapses the gap between his performance and the concept.

Not all films understand how to utilize Reeves’ blankness, but those that do benefit from it © Provided by Vox.com

By the same token, Reeves movies that don’t work — or that don’t work as well — treat the actor as a simple cipher, unknowable and distant.

The central conceit of 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic is that Reeves plays a futuristic courier who has given up his childhood memories in order to create space for data storage. It’s a clever enough cyberpunk idea, but it takes Reeves’ essential blankness at face value, and minimizes his formidable physicality. He’s a blank—and nothing else.

That’s an extreme example, and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly does more with a similarly weird premise, thanks largely to the unusual nature of the film’s rotoscoped animation, which was drawn over live-action sequences. And Constantine, directed by Hunger Games franchise-master Francis Lawrence,is glossy enough that you can usually forget how shallow it is. Both films illustrate that it's possible to make a decent Keanu Reeves movie that doesn't use Reeves particularly well.

But in lesser films — think Chain Reaction, or The Day the Earth Stood Still— the Reeves-as-blank dynamic means the movies have nowhere to go. These ho-hum productions are not entirely without pleasure, but they misunderstand the appeal of their star. They treat Reeves’ default blankness as an end state, rather than as a useful starting point for something more. Reeves is a vessel; when his movies don’t work, it’s usually because they simply leave him empty.

What links Reeves’ best performances is that they are investigations into his very blankness— and nowhere is this more true than in 1999’s The Matrix.

Reeves spends most of the movie enacting a kind of awestruck disbelief; his best line is a simple, perfectly stunned, “Whoa,” which could probably serve as Reeves’ personal motto. But what he lacks in emotional texture he makes up for in bodily expressiveness. Like so many great Keanu Reeves films, it is a showcase for his lethal-yet-elegant physicality. Reeves trained intensely for the film, and it shows: The Matrix is literally about the ways in which his body can twist the rules of time and space.

And instead of taking Reeves’ emptiness as a given, The Matrix uses it as a starting point for a story about someone whose life is an illusion, an empty shell, void of meaning. Reeves’ deep blankness is, in some sense, the subject of the movie, the key to its biggest reveal: that the world is an immersive digital fake, ginned up to keep humans passive while machines use them as batteries. It’s the story of a man who discovers the source of his emptiness, the reason why his life is so blank — and, eventually, decides to fight back, bending space around his body in the process. What makes it a great Keanu Reeves movie is that its premise and its star are inseparable from each other.

So it’s not just that The Matrix and John Wick are great vehicles for Keanu Reeves; it’s that Keanu Reeves is a great vehicle for John Wick and The Matrix. This is part of what makes an actor a movie star: the merging of character and persona.

But what Reeves delivers is something unusual. He’s definitely not a character actor, but he’s also not a traditional leading man, the kind of actor, like Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, who turns every role into an extension of himself. Instead, in his best roles, he becomes an extension of the film, as if he’s chemically bonded with its logline. He is cinematic concept made flesh, the physical embodiment of a premise. That’s why it’s so hard to imagine a movie like John Wick without Keanu Reeves; he is the movie, and the movie is him. Whoa, indeed.

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