Tom Jolliffe on Keanu Reeves, the king of action…
With John Wick: Chapter 2 in cinemas now, it seems a good time to take a look back over Keanu Reeves’ forays into the action genre. Over the years Reeves has dipped his toes into just about every genre. He broke out of course in comedy, becoming forever identified as Ted Theodore Logan in the two Bill and Ted films. He’s done dramas, thrillers, romance and horror films. He’s even done Shakespeare (not that the world, or indeed Reeves himself needs reminding of that). However, Ted Logan aside, his most iconic work has been in the action genre.
The ageless Reeves took his first foray into the genre back in 1991 with the cult classic, Point Break. Whilst undoubtedly he was overshadowed by Patrick Swayze in the film, what was apparent was that Reeves, while still actively trying to shake off that somewhat gormless image that playing Ted gave him, put in a lot of effort into his role. He’s never been thought of in that high of a regard as a Thespian, but he most certainly works hard in a film. Reeves seems to approach many roles with gusto, but when said role requires physical exertion of any kind, he tends to give his all and go the extra mile. As well as putting himself in the midst of the action sequences in Point Break (as Swayze also did), he also learnt how to surf for the role.
Point Break offered a perfect bridge. As Johnny Utah, Reeves is sort of a meat head. At the same time, whilst brash, he’s pro-active and focused. He might not be the brightest but he’s a few dozen more IQ points above Ted. The film itself was beautifully shot by Bigelow. The on-screen dynamic between Reeves and the more complex Swayze (playing ultimate badass Bodhi) is electric. Great set pieces too, particularly a foot chase that is pulsating.
A few years after Point Break, Reeves hit the big time with Speed. On paper the film shouldn’t have worked. We spend a huge chunk of the film stuck on a bus. It should have been dreadful but it was superbly crafted, with the tension ratcheted up to eleven. Reeves may not have been a great actor but Speed came at a time where the undisputed kings of the action genre, Stallone and Schwarzenegger were at the start of a decline. This genre had never been associated with great actors and a gap in the market was emerging for younger talent to come through. The key was to provide the typically stoic demeanour but look convincing in the action itself. Whether it was repelling down an elevator shaft upside down, or jumping from a car to a bus in motion, Reeves put himself into the action, doing a huge chunk of his own stunt work (something that hasn’t really changed). This allows two things. It allows the film maker to pull back with his camera. It allows for coherent editing. If your actor is performing his own fights, and some of his stunts, you don’t need to overuse a double. By putting them in the action, the audience can then buy the star as an action hero. It’s why Tom Cruise, who ordinarily may not have been able to gain association as one, is so clearly identified with as a strong action hero. His stunt work. Reeves really sells Speed. He still came across as a little hollow headed at times, but he really throws himself into the film. That enthusiasm for what he does always shines through, and it adds to the film.
Reeves struggled for a few years to follow up Speed’s success. As far as action goes there were a few mis-steps with Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction. Then Reeves really hit it big with The Matrix. An almost instantly iconic sci-fi action opus, it combined elements of classic sci-fi films, literature, philosophy and ground breaking visual effects with Hong Kong inspired Martial arts. Reeves and the other principal cast undertook crash course training in martial arts. Whilst the film in retrospect is a tad overrated, it is still a visual feast. The action scenes hold up very well, and in the first film at least, the visual effects still impress. By the end of the film you buy the fact that Reeves is “The One.” The two sequels offered further examples of martial arts mayhem, although the CGI excesses in both films haven’t aged very well. The 100 Smith brawl looks woeful now (although it never really looked good, even in 2003).
Much like the following years of Speed, Reeves success in The Matrix saw a lean spell in his career. The sequels aside, he struggled to find box office gold, and critical acclaim (a struggle he’s almost always had). As far as action based films there weren’t too many, with the forgettable and mediocre, Constantine and then a barely seen double with The Man of Tai Chi (which was serviceable) and 47 Ronin (which was awful).
At the end of 2014, almost from nowhere came his next action success and the birth of another iconic action character, with plenty of franchise potential (particularly given that said sequel is out in cinemas as we speak). John Wick is one of those films that had almost no anticipation. It was low budget, with a plot that was very simple. That simplicity, if done right is a good thing. But it has to be done right. It was. After 10 years of box office failure, Reeves big screen career was in tatters. Wick seemed destined to be a straight to video special. An unbankable lead, novice director and small budget didn’t bode well.
However, strong word of mouth spread. The internet leaves no surprises these days. It’s a blessing and a curse, but for something like John Wick, it allows audiences to get wind of a surprise. In this case the triumphant return to relevance for Keanu Reeves. The film procured the theatrical release that was never guaranteed during production. Wick came at a time where the ageing action hero was coming back to prominence and films like Taken were raking in big returns. With a sleek look, well crafted gun-fu action sequences and a delightfully simple plot, John Wick took its concept and did it right. It offered a more mature, more intense Reeves. It’s a perfect balance of maturity as an actor, with the ability to still remain physically imposing. In truth, Reeves has probably never been better than here.
Right now the action genre is headed up by commodities. It’s all pre-established superheroes. The character itself is almost, if not more important than the actor playing it. Every five years there’s a new Spider-Man, or Batman etc. Other than the Marvel/DC production line you have a tiring group who still plod on. Schwarzenegger still keeps on plugging away despite a lack of any audience demand outside of China or the direct to video market. Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves are the ones who keep on going and maintaining relevance. Whilst they’re both firmly in their 50’s now, they don’t look it and thus still look young enough to be a convincing hero, whilst the insistence of both to do their own stunt work also helps. Seeing The Expendables creaking around becomes almost pastiche. Whilst they don’t entirely play to it, it is laughable. Cruise, but perhaps more so Reeves (who can provide a little more intensity and enigma) maintain believability.
With strong reviews and an impressive opening weekend for John Wick: Chapter 2, it seems like there’s little danger of Keanu Reeves disappearing quietly off into the night. Write him off at your peril, and who knows what his next iconic action film may be, once John Wick has spent his last gold coin.