Who would have thought, back in the age of River's Edge, or, jeez, even Parenthood, that the sweet, dim stoner dude with the floppy hair and the whoa would end up becoming an action movie and science fiction icon?
Keanu Reeves’ career has taken quite a second-act turn, but there remains a certain Zen perfection to his performances in genre films; he’s always a steady center as chaos is constantly swirling all around him.
In honor of Replicas, we picked the five best Keanu Reeves genre films.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
All right, so maybe the technological breakthrough of the animation is a little less impressive 13 years later, when you can legitimately just do it yourself live on your iPhone. And yeah, boy, has the Alex Jones cameo ever not aged well. But! Keanu, through all the haze of Richard Linklater’s somewhat confusing narrative, is a solid, formidable center as an undercover cop investigating his friends — and trying to hide his own addiction from his superiors. The movie might not entirely hold up, but Keanu keeps it as aloft as he can.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
At the time, Reeves' performance in Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning horror film was widely derided. (Writing at Newsweek, critic David Ansen said the actor "looks bereft without a skateboard.") But as Reeves has grown in confidence over the past 10 years as a dramatic actor, we confess that we’ve warmed to his slightly zoned-out work here, which is sorta perfect when playing a man who has no idea that he’s about to enter the realm of vampires.
Everything in Bram Stoker's Dracula is elevated and exaggerated, and Reeves fits right in: there's something just as inhuman about his neutered attorney character as Gary Oldman's monstrous Count Dracula.
John Wick (2014)
15 years after The Matrix, Reeves found his next franchise as John Wick, a hitman who ends his retirement in order to take out the bastards who killed his dog.
Where the onetime Man Who Said "Whoa" used to be a serene onscreen presence, in John Wick his stillness has a lethal efficiency to it. Seriously, he kills so many people in this movie by shooting them point-blank in the head, and it's never not a stunning sight, as Reeves does it with skill and an utter lack of passion. But the film also allowed the actor to emote a little — the hitman is still grieving his dead wife — and in the process, we got Reeves' best latter-day performance. (By the way, John Wick: Chapter 2 ain't too shabby, either.)
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
"Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K."
As Ted, Keanu Reeves found the first of several iconic roles, that of a good-natured Valley dope who, alongside with his best bud Bill (Alex Winter), does a little time-travelin' in order to ace their school presentation. There's not a mean bone in Ted's body, and Reeves was never a sweeter onscreen presence than he was in Excellent Adventure, which has the enormous benefit of being modest and full of good cheer.
Bill and Ted may be dumb, but their hearts are always in the right place, and a lot of that has to do with how much fun Reeves and Winter clearly are having playing these bozos. The character helped make Reeves' name, but it also became a bit of an albatross: for years after, it was hard for audiences to imagine the actor as anyone but that guy. Eventually, though, Reeves would find a way.
The Matrix (1999)
Of all the Keanu movie moments, the one we'll always come back to first is Keanu's Neo who, having just realized "I know kung fu," distantly, almost bored, blocks all the flying fists coming his way, as if he's bewildered, even dimly amused, by this new power he has.
The key to Keanu breaking through in his big action fantasia was that he was a dead-eyed everyman who could discover he was The Chosen One, but not particularly changing expression about it. He was a new kind of hero for an age of people who were more passive reactors than active aggressors. He was all of us, for better or worse.
And he still makes trench coats look cool.