Pop quiz, hotshot: Did ‘Speed’ mark a Keanu Reeves turning point? Stream it now on Peacock!
It is hard to remember a time when Keanu Reeves wasn’t a beloved figure in pop culture. In recent years, he has become mythical. He does a few specific things, and they always work for us. If he appears in something, we’re having a good time. This was not always the case. For a long time, we could only see him as Ted "Theodore" Logan from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
When did that change? The John Wick movies (which are all streaming on Peacock right now) did a lot, that’s for sure. As the one-man murder machine, Keanu changed the way that we see him. A now iconic line from the first movie (“Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back”) may have gotten laughs in the trailer, but in the movie itself? We’re not laughing. We’re cheering. We’re in the tank for Keanu. We’re not laughing at him, we’re laughing with him.
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The John Wick movies cemented this status, but the beginning of the transition happened earlier in the storied career of Mr. Reeves. The seeds of the legend that he would eventually become can be found in Speed, which is also currently streaming on Peacock. If you haven’t seen it in a while (or if you’re lucky enough that you get to watch it for the first time), spool it on up. It was a thrill ride in 1994, and it still is.
Reeves plays Jack Traven, a policeman who is placed in a ridiculous situation. He’s on a bus full of people, and if the bus doesn’t stay moving above 50 mph, a bomb goes off. Can Traven save the day? Bet your a** he can.
Reeves had done action before, notably as Johnny Utah in the 1991 romp Point Break. That movie has since become the stuff of legend, but for some of us, it has become that in retrospect. Before Speed, Reeves had appeared in My Private Idaho, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Most people found him out of place in those movies, save Idaho. He’d also reprised the role of Ted in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and that cemented what everyone thought was his proper place.
When Speed came into our lives, things changed. We weren’t going to see Reeves, we were going to see an action-packed thrill ride. Reeves happened to be the star, and the revelation that ditzy Ted was now pitted against Dennis Hopper in a fight to the death was insane. He pulled off the action with aplomb. Some of his acting choices were… interesting. If you saw it in the theater, there may have been some laughs.
That’s not the case anymore. The world has finally tuned up to Keanu Reeves, and has fallen in love with his style. When you watch Speed now, all of his choices work. They work because we’ve had time with him. They worked back in 1994 — we just didn’t know it.
He burst back into the mainstream with The Matrix in 1999. That movie changed everything, except for how everyone thought of Reeves. Did he run and gun his way through the movie like a champ? Absolutely, but he also got mainstream grief for the utterance of “whoa” and “I know Kung Fu.”
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The truth is that the first Matrix movie wouldn’t have worked at all if Keanu Reeves was a bad actor. If he wasn’t naturally lovable, the movie would have sank under the weight. In terms of his action chops, we knew we were going to be fine. We knew that because of Speed.
In the run-up to John Wick, Reeves brought audiences the 2013 gem Man of Tai Chi. That did a lot to change public opinion before Wick beat everyone into submission with a hardcover book. Two Wick sequels, a third Bill & Ted movie, The Matrix Resurrections, and Toy Story 4 have since cemented Reeves as a beloved figure. He takes the work seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. He isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself, which is not something that action stars generally like to do. In the video game Cyberpunk 2077, he goes for broke as a near-caricature of himself. He’s easily a highlight of the game.
Point Break is a classic now, and not just because movies like Hot Fuzz celebrate it. It is fun and ridiculous. That has happened with Speed times a factor of ten, and not just because “the bus can’t go below 50 mph” has become a firm cultural moment. When you watch Speed now, you can see the genesis of Wick. You can see the genesis of an actor who commits to the role, the work, and lays his heart open on the screen for you to do with as you please. He’s always open, and he’s honest unto himself. The ingrained, ditzy kindness of Ted was never a hindrance for Reeves himself moving forward. It was only a hindrance for us.
He did what he did, and he does what he does. He commits, and even when it doesn’t work for you, you’ll still have a good time. It would have been easy for him to have done Point Break between stints as Ted, and then to continue playing doofuses for the rest of his life. He chose to do a little bit of everything instead. One man killing a thousand men to avenge a dog is a plausible scenario thanks to Reeves. He may not have made it work if he hadn’t first had to keep that bus going.
Party on dudes. Woah. He’s thinking he’s back. [Insert quote from The Lake House here]. Pop quiz, hotshot: When did we start to change the way we think about Keanu Reeves? Speed.
What do you do now, hotshot? You stream Speed on Peacock.