Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. This list has been updated for Keanu Reeves’ birthday.
The best blockbuster stars have a quality that sets them apart: the funny way that Bruce Willis gets pissed off; the moments of doubt when Denzel Washington bets on himself; and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love of language, his tremendous joy in pummeling enemies with words as well as fists. With Keanu Reeves, it’s his listening. Whether it’s a mad bomber, a flirty stranger, or a messenger from a different reality, Reeves is always utterly convincing as a man who needs to hear more.
From the beginning of his five-decade career, Reeves’ characters have been animated by an effortless curiosity, starting with the naive wonder of his breakthrough role, 1989’s Bill and Ted, and continuing through the reality-bending The Matrix. Even his off-screen choices seem bathed in curiosity, including his perhaps ill-fated appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Reeves is genuinely bad in that movie, and a lot of his work from the early ’90s can veer into wooden and stiff. He did not arrive in Hollywood perfectly formed, but instead flashed moments of greatness inconsistently, eventually learning how to harness his personal magic. Now, he’s 58 years old, and it’s been a long time since he missed.
This list celebrates just one of those early clunkers, because part of what makes Reeves iconic is the early lack of quality control. We spend more time honoring his greatest successes, which include some of the very best movies in history. Read Keanu Reeves’ 10 most iconic roles below. — Wren Graves.
10. Don John, Much Ado About Nothing (1994)
Shakespeare’s plays have been performed more or less constantly for the last 400 years, and rarely has The Bard been so brutally butchered. Reeves’ whole Much Ado About Nothing performance is one long sneer, and it’s a shame that he doesn’t change his face more often, because he often seems to have no idea what he’s saying. Sex jokes and threats of violence all come stumbling out of his mouth in the same aggrieved tone, although sometimes his voice goes up or down almost at random, like a plastic bag wobbling in the breeze.
His vocal technique especially lets him down. Shakespeare’s poetry demands the same kind of breath control as fast-paced hip-hop. But during one of the most famous lines, Much Ado About Nothing (“I’d rather be a canker in his hedge than a rose in his grace”), Reeves inhales three separate times in the span of only 15 words, chopping up one thought into a series of disconnected statements.
And yet for all that, it’s one of the most compelling moments in Reeves’ filmography, as an actor miles away from his comfort zone gives it everything he’s got. His first roles may have come because of his gobsmacking handsomeness, but over time he became a top-flight thespian — in no small part because he took risks like this. — W.G.
09. John Constantine, Constantine (2005)
Channeling the cynicism of a chain-smoker doomed by terminal lung cancer, Reeves fights again his perceived damnation in the 2005 film adaptation of DC Comics’ John Constantine series. His signature deadpan adds to the portrayal of the reluctant exorcist-turned-superhero carrying the burden of sending demons back to Hell, as does frequently coughing up his lungs for dramatic effect. Despite mixed reviews and lackluster box office performance, the film has picked up a cult following over the years, and Reeves himself has even said Constantine is the best character he’s ever played. — Eddie Fu
08. Scott Favor, My Own Private Idaho (1991)
My Own Private Idaho was a bold move for a still-burgeoning Reeves. In Gus Van Sant’s 1991 classic, he plays a male prostitute named Scott, who accompanies his best friend Mike on a series of trips to uncover details about his life and identity. A major entry in the New Queer Cinema movement and a leading example of avant-garde cinema, My Own Private Idaho proved that Keanu didn’t fear pushing boundaries — and he did so seamlessly. — Abby Jones
07. Sgt. Paul Sutton, A Walk in the Clouds (1995)
This divisive performance became a bit of a cultural sensation. Reeves was nominated for his second Razzie (following Much Ado About Nothing) as well as his second MTV Award for Most Desirable Male (following Point Break, for which he won). The film even earned a mention in Dean Koontz’s 1999 bestseller False Memory, in which a psychiatric patient develops a murderous fixation on Keanu Reeves.
In this period drama, Reeves plays a handsome World War II veteran who comes home, gets his heart broken, and grabs a train to another city looking for work. Along the way, he meets a beautiful college student heading back to her family vineyard. When he learns she’s pregnant, he offers to pretend to be the baby’s father so that she can face her domineering father. Wouldn’t you know it, they fall in love.
Respectfully, the Razzies can go blow themselves; Reeves is a perfectly respectable heartthrob, and his only crime was appearing in a passionate romantic fantasy. A Walk in the Clouds delivers the high that so many Lifetime and Netflix movies are chasing. — W.G.
06. Jack Traven, Speed (1994)
One of the best mad bomber plots in all of cinema: “Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”
Dennis Hopper’s constant taunting gives SWAT officer Jack Traven (Reeves) a villain worth hunting, and Reeves proves himself deft at Schwarzeneggerian one-liners. But the real heart of the story is Sandra Bullock’s Annie Porter, a bystander on the bus who takes over the driver’s seat after the bus driver is shot. The banter between Bullock and Reeves became an instant classic of sexual tension, adding an extra thrill to the adrenaline joyride. — W.G.
05. “Himself,” Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Keanu Reeves drops into Always Be My Maybe in the same way that a bomb drops onto an unsuspecting city. After childhood friends Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) reconnect as adults, the story would seem to be moving in a predictable direction. The comedy is fairly rooted in reality, even if it’s not strictly naturalistic, and the sudden appearance of one of the biggest movie stars on the planet — playing himself — is shattering to both the audience and Marcus, who suddenly finds himself in romantic competition with fucking Keanu Reeves.
Reeves has a blast mocking self-serious superstars. He’s preening and vain, doling out empty aphorisms like, “The only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream.” It’s one of the best examples of actors playing themselves in recent cinema. — W.G.
04. Johnny Utah, Point Break (1991)
Just two years after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure threatened to pigeonhole Reeves as a strictly comedic actor, Point Break helped launch him into his now universally-accepted status as an action hero. As former college quarterback-turned FBI rookie Johnny Utah, Reeves flaunts his range as a straight-laced government official who infiltrates the surfing community in an effort to identify a group of bank robbers. — A.J.
03. Ted Logan, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Californian aspiring rock star Ted Logan might be on the brink of flunking out of high school, but don’t call him a slacker: How many teens would hop in a time-traveling phone booth for a crash-course on world history? And who better to play one half of the iconic duo than a young Reeves?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure might be a slapstick sci-fi full of hilariously mispronounced Greek and “69” jokes, but at its core, it’s a movie that proves a good spirit and passion for life will take you much further than good grades. (And the following films in the franchise, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Bill and Ted Face the Music, nimbly continue that spirit.) Most excellent, indeed. — A.J.
02. John Wick, John Wick (2014) and Its Sequels
After learning kung fu for The Matrix, Reeves picked up Hong Kong action movie gun fu techniques to play the once-retired assassin John Wick. He got damn good at it, convincingly wielding every weapon imaginable in the franchise — even defeating NBA giant Boban Marjanović with a fucking book by the time we got to the third installment.
The movies aren’t all gunplay and revenge, though, as Reeves has tender moments with his canine companions and fleshes out a colorful underworld of assassins thanks to relationships with characters like Ian McShane’s Winston Scott and Laurence Fishburne’s The Bowery King. — E.F.
01. Neo, The Matrix (1999)
Over the course of one sci-fi classic, two wildly uneven sequels, and this year’s The Matrix Resurrections, Reeves has bent our perception of reality while luring thousands of young men into unfortunate investments in leather trench coats. Perhaps other action stars could have done just as much. But there’s one thing Reeves accomplishes as an actor better than anyone, and it’s the same thing that makes Neo so easy to root for: He looks truly astounded. Not surprised, not bewildered, but deeply, even spiritually, astonished.
The famed Red Pill/Blue Pill scene is a master class in doing more with less. As his soon-to-be-mentor Morpheus explains that all of his reality is a lie, Reeves’ mouth falls slightly open, and his eyes tighten. He’s a little disturbed, of course, and here his natural curiosity shines through, as Neo locks in on the red pill the moment it’s presented. But more than anything, he looks like he’s just repeating to himself, “Holy shit. What else?” That feeling — that hunger to know what’s next — is what keeps us coming back for more. — W.G.