Paul Whitington: In a world of tacky wannabes and shameless self-promotion, Keanu Reeves stands apart
In 1989, Ron Howard had a big hit with a comic drama called Parenthood. I went to see it, and was struck by the performance of a young actor I'd never heard of. He played Tod, the slacker boyfriend of a bull-headed teenage girl called Julie (Martha Plimpton), whose mother Helen (Dianne Wiest) isn't thrilled about this new arrangement. Tod is vacant, work-shy, possibly a pothead: your average bourgeois parent's worst nightmare in other words, and at one point Helen gives him a stern talking to.
He responds by telling her about how his dad used to wake him up by flicking lit cigarettes at him and saying "hey asshole, get up and make me breakfast". He then tells a stunned Helen that "you need a licence to buy a dog, or drive a car; hell, you need a licence to catch a fish, but they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father". His brief soliloquy concluded, Tod shrugs amiably and ambles off. It was a brilliant piece of film acting, and I remember thinking to myself that the actor in question was going to go far.
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Things haven't worked out quite so smoothly for Keanu Reeves, whose uniquely eccentric movie career has contained lows as well as highs, prompting some to conclude that he can't act at all. This is not only wrong, but misses the point of Reeves entirely.
He has, it is true, a narrow range, and is easy to miscast. But his screen presence is compelling, and while his relaxed, easygoing acting style is perhaps best suited to romcoms and comedies, he has also proved himself a singularly persuasive action hero.
Keanu is a star, pure and simple, one of those people the camera loves and that you want to watch no matter what he's doing. Then there's Keanu the man, a quiet, reserved, dignified and refreshingly unknowable actor, who won't play the celebrity game, shuns social media and in rare interviews has an uncanny knack of outfoxing his interrogators.
In a world of tacky wannabes and shameless self-promotion, he stands apart. Known for his soft-spoken manner, random acts of kindness and on-set humility, he's the Saint Francis of Hollywood, a community that badly needs one.
Nothing saintly about his latest film, however. In John Wick 3: Parabellum, Reeves reprises with aplomb the role of a silent, stony-faced, remorseless assassin, who in the original 2014 film came out of retirement to kill a Russian gangster who shot his dog. In John Wick 2 he travelled to Italy to whack a Mafia boss and fulfil a blood oath, but was excommunicated from the secret brotherhood of assassins for breaking a cardinal rule. In Parabellum, then, Wick is on the run, with a high price on his head, and the body count reaches the high hundreds as he seeks to escape an impossible situation. For all the extreme violence on display - people getting stabbed in the head and eyes etc, and killed in every conceivable manner - John Wick 3 is as visually compelling as its predecessors, even strangely beautiful at times.
A lot of that is down to director Chad Stahelski's brilliantly choreographed fight sequences, but also to the rangy animal grace of Reeves himself, who sometimes looks more like a dancer than a martial artist when he fights. He's 54 but shows few signs of it; he could pass for a decade younger and might continue with this action lark for some time yet.
Parabellum leaves the door wide open for a 'John Wick 4', and he's also involved in a forthcoming Fast & Furious spin-off called Hobbs & Shaw. But recently Keanu has made a welcome return to comedy. Last year he starred with his old friend Winona Ryder in a romcom, Destination Wedding: later this month he'll pop up in a Netflix comedy called Always Be My Maybe; he has a voice role in Toy Story 4 and, most enticingly of all for people of a certain generation (i.e. me), he'll reprise the role of amiable idiot Ted Logan in Bill & Ted Face the Music, which is due out next year.
The original film on which that comedy is based, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, came out way back in 1989, just before Parenthood. That was a big year for Keanu, who from nowhere became an A-list Hollywood actor: most of us have loved him ever since.
Keanu's childhood was not a neat and tidy one. He was born in Beirut on September 2, 1964, to an English mother and a partly Chinese-Hawaiian father. A geologist and sometime drug dealer, Samuel Reeves was arrested for selling heroin in Honolulu Airport, and abandoned his family when Keanu was three. Thereafter, Keanu, his mother and younger sister moved to Sydney, then New York and ultimately Toronto, where he was mainly raised.
He attended four high schools, and was thrown out of one, but eventually discovered twin passions. One was ice hockey: he was a talented goalie, and dreamed of playing for Canada, but after injury put paid to that ambition, Keanu began to concentrate instead on acting.
He did Shakespeare at school, and moved to Hollywood at 17 after obtaining a green card. With the help of a former stepfather, Paul Aaron, he picked up work in TV ads, a decent role in the 1986 teen thriller River's Edge; then came Bill & Ted, and Parenthood.
In the early 1990s, as he graduated from juvenile to mature roles, Keanu made some important friends. He bonded with River Phoenix when they starred together in the comedy I Love You to Death and in Gus van Sant's seminal drama My Own Private Idaho, and was devastated by Phoenix's death. A key early action role was in the bank heist/surfer film Point Break, alongside Patrick Swayze. And in 1994 he met Sandra Bullock on the set of the hit thriller Speed - they've been friends ever since.
Speed is one of Reeves' best films, and underlined the impression that the shockingly handsome actor could handle action roles. They would become something of a speciality thereafter, as he starred in films like the Matrix trilogy, Constantine, Street Kings, 47 Ronin. There's been experimentation, too, playing an animated version of himself in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and directing and starring in his own soulful martial arts film, Man of Tai Chi.
In his early encounters with journalists, Reeves traded on his dopey Bill & Ted persona to deflect intrusive questions, raising the notion that he wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. Which is not true of course, but entirely his own fault. In one interview he even said: "I'm a meathead man! You've got smart people, and you've got dumb people - I just happen to be dumb." Now what other Hollywood star would come out with something like that?
His private life is resolutely private, but has been marked by tragedy. In 1999, Keanu's then girlfriend Jennifer Syme gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Less than two years later, Syme died in a car crash. Keanu has never married.
In 2010, a photo of him looking wistful while eating a sandwich alone on a park bench led to a sympathetic but rather prurient 'Keanu is sad' internet campaign. He was a good sport about it, but quietly pointed out that he wasn't actually depressed at all.
While most of one's cherished '90s icons are either dead or irrelevant, Keanu Reeves remains unblemished. I interviewed him a couple of years back, and feared he might not turn out to be as nice as everyone thought. I needn't have worried: he was shy, charming, warm, funny and ever so slightly goofy.
When I pointed out that the success of the John Wick franchise had raised industry conjecture that as he grows older, Keanu would, a la Liam Neeson, concentrate exclusively on action vehicles, he quietly demurred.
"I've always hoped to do different kinds of films in the sense of stories and genre and scale," he told me, "so hopefully I can continue to do that. I mean I love action films, and I love being a part of them, but they have to have a story and they have to have a real film-maker behind them, you know - I don't want to just do just start doing them for the sake of it, and just showing up." He paused, and smiled ruefully. "Well that's what I'm saying now - maybe in five years I'll feel different!"