Comment: Keanu Reeves is only great when he can be blank-faced and beautiful
John Wick is back, and I’m as excited as a fat man locked in a room full of cream cakes…who’s just swallowed the key. The first film, released in 2015, was a brilliant action-thriller. This very newspaper – indeed, this very writer – said it “rocked like a hurricane”, which for action-thrillers is the critical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
I also said then that Keanu Reeves was “magnetic in the role of Punishment Machine”. I’ve always loved Keanu, I must say. For starters, you have to have a little bit of love for any man who looks that finger-lickin’ fine (still, at the age of 52).
But it’s not just his incredible good looks that have enamoured me of Keanu. He’s also a great movie star.
Granted, he’s not the world’s best actor, in the strictly technical sense of displaying that craft’s finer nuances. But he is a great star, as proven by a three-decade career of many, many hit movies and a few truly iconic ones.
However, there’s a Keanu caveat – a Keanuveat, you might say. The man is only great when he’s playing a character who’s detached, emotionless, maybe a little strange, or cut adrift from the heaving mass of humanity.
And possibly coming across as being slightly baked. Dude.
So, for instance, John Wick is perfect for Keanu. He has the most perfunctory of backstories and virtually no character motivation (in short: my wife died and I’m sad, Alfie Allen killed my dog and now I’m sad and mad – let the rampage of vengeance begin).
This isn’t a bad thing, incidentally; it is what it is. The point here is: Keanu looks super-cool, he kills a tonne of bad guys in a variety of stylishly inventive ways…and both him and the movie are riveting.
He was also just right for Dangerous Liaisons (handsome young gigolo who I don’t think has even one line of dialogue); Something’s Gotta Give (ditto, with a smidgeon more dialogue); Bill & Ted times two (empty-headed goofball); Parenthood (ditto); Point Break (likeable hunk, not quite Einstein, speaks in memorable-but-meaningless catchphrases); Speed (likeable hunk, fewer catchphrases, even less of a resemblance to Einstein); Street Kings (not-very-likeable hunk, but kicks ass like it’s going out of fashion); Little Buddha (the living essence of Zen-like obliteration of the self); Johnny Mnemonic (literally has part of his mind excised); The Matrix and its crappy sequels (a sort of stoner-crossed-with-Jesus, lost in a bizarre, jaw-dropping world he doesn’t understand); A Scanner Darkly (scruffy narc addicted to Substance D, hence his cerebral synapses have long since been fried into oblivion).
There’s a moment in the first Matrix film where Keanu goes “Whoa!” in amazement. And you half expect him to add, “…dude. Did you see that!? Uh…whoa. What? Take this bong offa me, man!”
Whereas in films like Dracula, A Walk in the Clouds, The Devil’s Advocate, The Watcher, The Gift, The Lake House – you know, where he’s required to emote a little – Keanu sucks, God love him, and is only rescued by his innate amiability.
To give another Matrix example, in Reloaded where he rescues Trinity and declares, “I love you too damn much.” Reader, I shed hot tears… of laughter. I love you too damn much! Oh Keanu, you big lug.
To my knowledge, the only exception to this rule – i.e. a drama where Keanu played a “real”, believable character, and acted well and movingly – is My Own Private Idaho. And even that was stylised to a certain extent, with the Shakespearean interlude and all, and was about two rent-boys drifting around the edges of a sleazy Portland dreamworld, and overall was very “Gus van Sant” (though fantastic too, having said that).
Keanu is best when he says nothing at all – or at least, very little. He’s great in roles where he can be blank-faced and beautiful, not so great in kitchen-sink dramas and dreary indie films about “real life”.
In some ways, he’s the quintessential screen idol for an atomised, indifferent modern world – as evidenced also, perhaps, by all those memes which seem to follow him like the after-tail of a comet.
So Keanu’s not just a star, then, he’s a comet too. One way or the other, he’s heavenly.