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Keanu's best action movies, ranked from 'The Matrix' to 'John Wick'
"Pop quiz, hot shot..."
There was once a time when Keanu Reeves was simply best known as one of the guys from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Since then, he's become a bonafide action movie star. He doesn't always do action movies (his roster includes Always Be My Maybe, Toy Story 4, and Much Ado About Nothing), but lately he has starred in more of them as the John Wick series has proven that audiences love to see Mr. Reeves do lots of kick-punching and gun ballets.
Thanks to the large amount of action movie credits that the mythological figure of Keanu has built up, there's no shortage of opportunities to watch him kick booty up and down the screen. While we wait for our minds to be blown by John Wick: Chapter 4 arriving in theaters March 24, it's time to rank all of our favorite action movies that star the once and future Neo. The star power of Keanu cannot be denied, so down the hatch with that red pill and get ready to rock. Whoa. (If you're in the mood to get a quick fix for your Keanu action needs, head over to Peacock, where John Wick, John Wick Chapter 2, and John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum are all streaming away!)
13. 47 Ronin (2013)
47 Ronin is really two movies in one. There's the grounded take on the historical Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin that director Carl Rinsch wanted to make, and then there's a weird, somewhat forced attempt at injecting that take with a clumsy dose of fantasy pulp. The studio forced Rinsch to add that stuff, with some of that material added in post. Reeves plays Kai, and his character is more involved with the odd fantasy side of the movie, playing a "half-breed" man who was found in some magical woods that are never explained.
Hiroyuki Sanada (Westworld, The Wolverine, and the recent Mortal Kombat) is the real hero of the film, leading the band of Ronin who are seeking to avenge their fallen master. Reeves must have liked working with him, because they'll soon share the screen again in John Wick: Chapter 4. This movie, however, is definitely an unfortunate victim of studio interference. That's not the director's fault, and it's not Reeves' fault either. The imagery is lush and the final battle is solid. Reeves isn't present for that battle, however; he's too busy using a magical sword to fight off a shapeshifting witch played by Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim). Because reasons. Her character makes some legit wacky choices because she's unburdened by the seriousness of the real-life tale. Much like his character, Reeves is caught between two worlds: the grounded, contemplative story this movie started out being, and the more supernatural, magical wannabe action epic that the finished project ultimately became. Reeves walks that tonal tightrope well, but the movie struggles to service his good effort.
12. The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
The long-awaited, final Matrix movie brought plenty of old school sci-fi action to the franchise, and brought plenty of the original stars back along for the ride (Keanu Reeves included). Though the action was solid and paid homage to the trademark style the original trilogy pioneered with that nifty "bullet time" effects work, it also felt like... well, a throwback to the late 1990s and early 2000s when The Matrix was the coolest thing out there and everyone was trying to copy it.
That said, it's still very cool, it just also feels very familiar. The legacy sequel went for even more think-y vibes than the original films, and your mileage will vary greatly as to whether or not you enjoyed that twist. But with Reeves now so closely associated with the John Wick character and his trademark long hair, the juxtaposition of seeing him fall back into the role of Neo is just a bit off.
11. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
In this box office flop from director Robert Longo, Reeves plays a data courier named Johnny Smith, who must get a ton of data out of his head before it kills him. And to make things worse, the Yakuza are hunting him down. Dolph Lundgren is in the mix, and so is '90's mainstay Dina Meyer in her first feature film role.
Johnny Mnemonic is a weird, uneven cyberpunk romp that plays like a rough draft of Reeves' future masterpiece, The Matrix. It's very odd in its tone, and although the story is sometimes prescient, the narrative lacks the cohesion necessary to deliver on the inspired premise. But it's fun to watch what everyone in 1995 thought life would be like in 2021. They got a lot right.
Reeves has his share of running, chasing, etc., but our favorite action moments come when he's hacking things. The CGI gives you a retro high as Reeves manipulates data with what looks like a twin pair of Nintendo Power Gloves. There's an added bit of weirdness here, too: many of the designs on display look like they are right out of the recent game Cyberpunk 2077. Reeves features in that game, in which you play someone who is going to die because of the data in their head. That data is the consciousness of the character played by Reeves.
10. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
We thought that this trilogy-capper was going to be the last we'd see from the Matrix universe. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski in 2003, Matrix Revolutions was met with tepid response by both audiences and critics, given the less-than-stellar reactions to its predecessor, Matrix Reloaded. Most of the movie takes place outside of the Matrix, so there's not a lot of fancy outfits, gunplay, or kung fu to keep audiences entertained or enthralled like they were in the first movie. In fact, Neo takes a frustrating backseat for most of the movie's runtime, as does Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Audiences spend a considerable amount of time with a group of new characters struggling to defend Zion from the swarm of metal calamari breaching their stronghold.
The prolonged conflict features anime-inspired visuals and truly inventive action set pieces as these new characters strap themselves into giant mech suits and unload arm canons on the enemy. As impressive as the CG is during this epic attack sequence, the movie struggles to earn audience investment in these new characters as we spend most of the movie wishing we were experiencing such a battle with the core three that hooked us in in the first movie.
Once Neo returns for a gravity-defying (and symbolism-heavy) final brawl with Agent Smith (Hugh Weaving), Revolutions sparks with some much-needed life on its way to a very anti-climactic ending. But this battle supreme is very satisfying, as is the final scene between the new Oracle (Mary Alice) and the exposition-happy Architect (Helmut Bakaitis). Granted, we are stumped as to why Morpheus is not given a scene to grieve or even acknowledge in a dramatically earned way the loss of his two top lieutenants, which is one of the film's most notable and damning missteps.
9. Chain Reaction (1996)
The term "popcorn movie" was invented for would-be summer blockbusters like this. In Chain Reaction, from director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), Reeves plays Eddie Kasalivich, who is part of a team that invents a power source that won't destroy the environment. Success! Not really, because the government frames both him and Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) for murder and they both have to go on the run. This bumpy '90s entry also features Morgan Freeman and Brian Cox.
It's one of those movies that is seemingly always on cable and, for whatever reason, we'd background watch it. It's a solid premise executed in some ridiculous ways, but so what? The combined charisma of Reeves and Weisz can make anything work.
8. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The first Matrix sequel expanded upon the work of the first film, and the Wachowskis brought in many story threads that would only pay off in the third movie. That tends to happen when sequels are shot concurrently, as was the case for Reloaded and Revolutions. We go to the human colony of Zion for the first time, and we discover that every human wears those ripped-up sweaters. There's also that infamous rave sequence. Most of this movie's story involves discovering the purpose of "the one" and ending the war between humans and machines. When we finally arrived at that moment in 2003, the scene with the Architect laying everything out with an info dump of exposition was baffling.
All of those moments that many of us didn't like in 2003 seemingly play just fine now (jury is still out on the Architect scene though). What has always worked about this movie are the set pieces. The action is bigger, and occasionally better, than the bullet times antics of the first film. Reeves is kicking digital bottoms left and right, using a variety of weaponry and flying around the screen like Superman. The famous "Burly Brawl" has him fighting off over a hundred Agent Smiths, and in a normal movie that would be the action scene. Not here, because Neo fighting off the Merovingian's thugs comes next, as does the gargantuan glory of the riveting and white-knuckle freeway chase.
Reeves may not play a big part of that sequence (it's mostly Morpheus and Trinity), but it is an all-time banger classic. As was the case with Revolutions (and with Reeves himself), Reloaded has gotten better with age.
7. Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Reeves makes his directorial debut with Man of Tai Chi and costars in this slow-burn martial arts movie as the suspicious Donaka Mark, who is running an illegal underground fight ring in Hong Kong. Fans aren't used to seeing Keanu play the villain, but he is more than well-suited for the departure. The heroics are saved for Tiger Chen and Karen Mok, who have to take him down. To help pull off this impressive action flick, Reeves and the production recruited a large team of Hong Kong's best stunt performers. The results speak for themselves, because this is truly an action-packed thrill ride that takes no prisoners. Action maestro John Woo praised it at the 2013 Bejing Film Festival, and if that's not a stamp of approval then we don't know what is.
6. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (now streaming on Peacock!) dials everything you loved about the first movie up to 11, and sometimes waaaay past that. Reeves' Wick is struggling to find a path out of the bloody, bullet-ridden fallout of the events from the first movie, with franchise mainstays Ian McShane and Lance Reddick back for more, too. Chapter 2 also reunites Reeves with his Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, introduced in this movie as the King of the Bowery. Reeves seeks the King's help and refuge when members of his secret assassination cabal continue to hunt him down. Director Chad Stahelski finds an almost numbing way to keep the inventive gunfights and brawls flowing, with an impressive mix of gunplay and martial arts. It is a solid, if emotionally inert, action pic, as Chapter 2 fleshes out the world of its titular assassin in ways that few action movies ever do.
5. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
20 minutes into this movie (now streaming on Peacock!), John Wick is riding a horse down busy city streets after throwing at least 100 knives and beating a man to death with a book.
Wick is on the run because of the choices he made at the end of Chapter 2, and everyone who helped him is in trouble, too. This non-stop parade of killing and high-stakes action is all because someone killed Wick's dog, and many characters point that out to John as the movie punches and kicks its way into the Action Movie Hall of Fame.
Stakelski directs once again, and the action sequences here are among the best in the franchise. Wick's world expands even more, as Parabellum adds Angelica Huston and a dog-loving, butt-kicking Halle Berry to the mix. A long sequence where Reeves, Berry, and two dogs take out an endless horde of stooges is an easy highlight.
If we thought that John was pissed off before, that's nothing compared to the look he gives at movie's end. This is no longer about a wrongly-slain pet, it has turned into John going scorched earth on the organization that is holding him in its grasp. We truly can't imagine the symphony of carnage that is in store for Chapters 4 and 5 of the John Wick saga.
4. Point Break (1991)
Have you ever heard the tale of Johnny Utah? He's an FBI agent who goes undercover in order to investigate a group of surfers who may also be bank robbers. Reeves plays Utah, and Patrick Swayze plays Bodhi, the leader of the surfer gang. Their bromance/bro-rivalry helps Utah learn all about surfing and friendship and skydiving.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (with a story conceived by both her and then-husband James Cameron), Point Break is '90s action movie bonkers in all the right ways. It's loony, and it shouldn't work at all; for many people back in 1991, it didn't. Since then, however, it has become a giant cult hit. A remake was attempted in 2015, but come on. You can't beat the double bill of Reeves and Swayze.
There are many standout action sequences, and in case you haven't seen it, we don't want to spoil the ending. It takes itself so seriously that it's staggering. The one scene that always comes to mind about this movie is the same one that Edgar Wright parodies in his perfect homage to action movie tropes, Hot Fuzz. Bodhi and Utah end up in a foot chase following a robbery, and thanks to an old injury, Bodhi outruns Utah. Bodhi sports a Reagan mask, by the way, because wearing rubber masks of former presidents is the gang's schtick when they aren't surfing. As Bodhi runs, Utah has him dead in his sights... but he can't pull the trigger. Instead, he empties a clip into the sky while screaming. There is life before, and life after, this moment. And this movie.
3. John Wick (2014)
Who saw this one coming? A former assassin who has managed to get out of the game loses the love of his life and the last thing she ever gave him: a dog. A bunch of morons led by Alfie "Theon Greyjoy" Allen kill that dog. Then, the former assassin makes them pay. With guns. Lots of guns.
Before John Wick (now streaming on Peacock!) became a thing, the movie's premise was a hard sell, made even harder by less-than-effective trailers. But then we saw the movie and witnessed a new type of action movie being born as John Wick's gritty, take-no-prisoners, action-y solves to problems won audiences over big time. Reeves' John Wick, the masterful avenger of dogs, takes us on a breathless and surprisingly resonate rampage of fists and gunfire. Though the action and the lore of this series gets bigger (and, some would argue, more ridiculous) with each entry, there's a simplicity to this first round that earns it such a high ranking.
2. Speed (1994)
"Pop quiz, hotshot..." There's a bomb on a bus, and it'll go off if that bus goes under 50 mph. What do you do? You get Jack Traven to save the day, that's what.
Directed by Jan de Bont, the title of this movie lets you know that it's not going to let up, which it doesn't. Once Reeves gets going as Jack, you're off, and the tension and action builds and grips you until the end credits roll. Part of the movie's enduring legacy and success are its impressive supporting cast, including the unhinged Dennis Hopper as the villain and Sandra Bullock in a star-making role as Annie, the bus passenger forced to get behind the wheel when the movie becomes an unofficial two-hander in the second act. Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton also round out the cast of actors who give the material the exact amount of whatever it needs to land all its intentions and thrills. One of the best summer movies ever made. And it made Reeves a true action hero.
1. The Matrix (1999)
Based on the trailers, The Matrix looked like Johnny Mnemonic but with better effects. How wrong that thinking was. Word got around in 1999 that this was a mind-blowing must-see, and even the most skeptical among us were truly impressed by what we saw. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, The Matrix was a landmark moment in cinema.
It isn't just a great action movie, it's also a great sci-fi movie. Reeves grounds it all with his earnest and likable performance as Mr. Anderson, a nobody who slowly morphs into "Neo" as the world he thought was real gives way to ones and zeroes that he can eventually manipulate and control like a superhero. Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne are right there with him as Trinity and Morpheus, respectively, as Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the duplicitous Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) threaten to upend their attempt to spark a revolution to free as many minds from the Matrix as they can. One awesome bullet-time fight at a time.
The Matrix re-imagined what sci-fi action could be. It spawned countless copycats. It never would have worked without the big, pretty eyes of Keanu Reeves. He was, and always will be, the one.
To get refreshed on all the puppy snuggles and gunplay of the John Wick franchise, head over to Peacock for John Wick, John Wick Chapter 2, and John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. Peacock's The Continental -- a prequel series which takes place in 1975 and centers around young hotel manager, Winston Scott (Colin Woodell playing the character made famous on the big screen by McShane) -- debuts later this year.