'John Wick,' now in theaters, is earning Reeves his best reviews in years
"I haven’t been getting many offers from the studios," Keanu Reeves told Indiewire this week. “It sucks, but it’s just the way it is.” Such a statement would have been unfathomable 20 years ago. The actor, whose new film, the stylish throwback thriller John Wick, opens today, was once one of the bigger action stars around, thanks to such films as Point Break (1991), Speed (1994), and The Matrix (1999).
Reeves hasn’t had a $100 million domestic hit since 2003, though, when the Matrix sequels and Something’s Gotta Give were all successes. He’s also coming off his last studio picture, 2013’s expensive, long-delayed megaflop 47 Ronin. Is Reeves a once-major star whose time has passed?
1999’s ‘The Matrix’ capped a decade-long run of action movies for the actor
The case of Keanu has never been that simple. He has always been a curious sort of movie star — never as comfortable with fame as, say, Tom Cruise, and having a broad, almost polymath-like approach to his creative life that’s seen him do everything from playing in a grunge band to writing a “grown-up children’s book” called Ode to Happiness. He’s the James Franco of his day, as it were.
He might be concerned about the lack of studio offers now, but that hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, after his breakout role at age 22 in the 1986 indie drama River’s Edge, he didn’t go down the Brat Pack route of some of his contemporaries, instead following it up with more small-scale projects, including a supporting role in the Oscar-nominated period drama Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
Nevertheless, he soon settled into a comfortable star track thanks to comedy sleeper Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989 and action movie Point Break in 1991, which saw him play two sides of the same sincere surfer-kid coin. The two films could’ve easily led to more blockbuster fare, but Reeves went in another direction, teaming with acclaimed auteurs on offbeat projects like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), often taking pay cuts and supporting roles for the privilege.
Reeves, with the late River Phoenix, in 1991’s ‘My Own Private Idaho’
To a degree, it’s a pattern that Reeves has followed ever since. Speed in 1994 was the biggest hit of his career up to that point, but he turned down the sequel for the indie drama The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997). The Matrix (1999) was even bigger, and that was followed by Sam Raimi’s The Gift (2000), in which he had a small part (incidentally, one of his best performances). And indies Thumbsucker (2005) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) came on the heels ofthe Matrix sequels and the modest comic-book success of Constantine (2005).
He’s been restless and striving in his extracurricular work too. He spent much of the 1990s touring with his band, Dogstar, and turned down a role in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in order to play Hamlet on the stage in Winnipeg. More recently, he’s moved into filmmaking, producing and fronting the film-versus-digital documentary Side by Side (2012) and making his directorial debut with kung-fu actioner Man of Tai Chi (2013).
From all these varied side projects; from his quiet, distanced mood in interviews; even from the infamous "Sad Keanu" meme, it’s easy to get an impression of him as a star who’s uncomfortable with his fame, even as audiences demand more blockbuster-sized movies from him. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, he’s not an automatic draw in genre fare: For every Speed or The Matrix, there’s a Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Chain Reaction (1996), or Street Kings (2008) — commercially oriented action movies that tanked at the box office. (He’s a consistent draw abroad, though: 47 Ronin took in nearly three times as much internationally as it did in the U.S.)
Strong international box-office for ‘47 Ronin’ proved Reeves is still popular with foreign audiences
Furthermore, Reeves genuinely likes making those kinds of action movies. Many directors, including the Wachowskis, have spoken of his absolute commitment to these films, and it’s notable that his directorial debut was a marital arts actioner. (“I dig kung-fu movies,” Reeves told Rolling Stone back in 2000.) He doesn’t even see a distinction: In that same recent Indiewire interview, he said, “If we’re going to do a delineation between studio and independent [films], I was always hoping to do both.”
To hear him tell it, he’s not getting his wish right now, and his confirmed upcoming projects are either indies or, interestingly, on TV (the hit man-themed show Rain, in which he’d star). The studios don’t seem to have given up on him entirely: The Wrap reported last week that Reeves was one of the four frontrunners under consideration for the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, along with Colin Farrell, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Joaquin Phoenix, after online fans lobbied the studio. Whether the Marvel flirtation is serious or not is another question (at age 50, he’d be the oldest Marvel lead to date, and he probably comes off as too sincere an actor for the comic-book universe). But with John Wick landing the actor his best reviews for a mainstream movie since The Matrix — and the eternal promise of a new Bill & Ted movie still lingering out there — we feel more primed than ever for a Reeves renaissance.
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Photos: Associated Press, Hitfix, Fine Line Pictures,