Summer might have just shown up (in some parts of the world, anyway), but we think we can safely call this the year of Keanu Reeves. Thanks in great part to the ageless, genial actor, the third chapter in the John Wick series offered a strong antidote to sequelitis, even as most non-Marvel franchises struggled. Just last month, Reeves also showed off his considerable comedic chops in the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, and as Duke Caboom, he’s poised to help Toy Story 4 run over the box-office competition. These performances and productions are incredibly varied—it’s clear that Reeves is having fun blowing up the cipher-like image that’s dogged his career at times. His performance in last year’s Replicas in particular comes across as a rejoinder to anyone who’s ever called Reeves robotic.
But though the actor has bucked some trends, there’s one he remains committed to: taking on every John, Jack, and Johnny role that comes his way. Reeves was a Jack (Be-Nimble) before he was a Ted “Theodore” Logan, a Johnny (Utah) before he became The One in the Matrix films. And as he’s matured, he’s settled into the more formal iteration of John in the John Wick movies and a forthcoming limited series called Rain, in which he plays a character called John Rain. But because he still has an undeniably boyish quality, Reeves will also voice Johnny Silverhand in the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.
As William Shakespeare once wondered, what’s in a name? Would Reeves have been just as sweet or formidable in these roles if they had any other name? The A.V. Club investigates in the list below.
Keanu Dons Johns (and Johnnys)
Johnny Utah, Point Break (1991)
Point Break’s FBI Special Agent Johnny Utah is the most perfectly named character in all of cinema, but not a lot of people call him by his full name. That’s because his surname is an ideal shorthand for when you want him to go long while playing night beach football, or inform him of his perfect shooting score (the first line of the movie is “100%, Utah!”), or tell him that you would like an extra meatball sandwich. So in Point Break, people only call Reeves’ character “Johnny” when they’re being their most sincere, like bank robber/surfer guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) imparting valuable life lessons, or tender moments with the usually hard-edged surfer girl Tyler (Lori Petty). Importantly, Reeves is a “Johnny” here, which indicates his character’s inherent boyishness, his football star past, and his ease with spinning spirited retorts like, “I caught my first tube today… sir.” And also because the name “John Utah” would sound even more hilarious. [Gwen Ihnat]
Johnny Mnemonic, Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
As the eponymous Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves basically plays one big, handsome jump drive in this Robert Longo film based on a William Gibson story. This dystopian world is populated by characters with names like Spider and J-Bone, as well the Lo-Teks, a rebel group trying to save the world from its over-reliance on technology—a thread that was the most prescient thing about Johnny Mnemonic, which otherwise had a laughably clunky depiction of a high-tech, highly impersonal world. In comparison, Johnny and his bodyguard Jane (Dina Meyer) are rather unimaginatively named, but as the film reveals what Johnny’s ultimate goal is—to recover his childhood memories and reclaim a greater measure of his humanity—it makes sense that he’d be a Johnny and not a John or a Mr. Mnemonic. While trying to survive in this “data is king” future, Johnny’s stuck in the past. [Danette Chavez]
John Constantine, Constantine (2005)
As created by Alan Moore in the pages of Swamp Thing, demon hunter John Constantine was originally supposed to be from Liverpool. But given Keanu’s track record with British accents (see: Bram Stoker’s Dracula), perhaps it’s for the best that the character was relocated to Los Angeles for his big-screen debut in 2005. Constantine’s morose cynicism—always a specialty of Keanu’s—was thankfully translated intact, as was the signature cigarette always hanging out of the character’s mouth. This particular “John” is of the hiding-in-plain-sight variety of a “John Doe,” until the reference to the sainted Roman emperor (and internal rhyme) of his last name lets us know that Constantine is a lot more important than his placid exterior and shitty apartment above a bowling alley would lead you to believe. [Katie Rife]
John Wall, Generation Um… (2012)
Fans of “Sad Keanu” were treated to 96 minutes of their favorite meme in this navel-gazing indie drama from Mark L. Mann. As John Wall, Keanu Reeves rides a train sadly, drives a car dolefully, and eats a cupcake sorrowfully as Generation Um… tries wanly to establish some kind of narrative beyond “middle-aged man is glum.” When John Wall finally switches to a different emotional gear, it’s as a spiteful ersatz documentarian, who films the women he’s been chauffeuring around as they spill their darkest secrets. This is both the blandest and the saddest of Johns in Reeves’ repertoire—the most interesting thing about the film is that it feels kind of like a spiritual prequel to Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, only with the actor on the other side of the camera and interrogation. [Danette Chavez]
John Wick, John Wick series (2014–)
It says something that the name John Wick, which rather sounds like it could be the name of the owner of a particularly homey B&B, could strike the same fear in the hearts of assassins and henchmen as his underworld sobriquet: Baba Yaga (and we know, Baba Yaga doesn’t translate to “the bogeyman,” but we’ve gotta work with what we’ve got). But when you’re capable of taking down a whole crew of Russian heavies and their subcontractors, you don’t need to go by any other name. His competitors and targets regularly call him “Mr. Wick,” even as he dispatches them, which lends greater weight to every utterance of “John.” We hear it most frequently from the people who know or care about him, like his late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). Over three films, the deployment of the name’s taken on different meanings; in John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, Halle Berry turns “John” into more of a rebuke when he shows up asking for a huge favor. [Danette Chavez]
Jonathan Harker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Keanu’s performance as poor, doomed Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was widely drubbed upon the film’s release in 1992, particularly among reviewers who rolled their eyes at the Toronto native’s attempt at a posh London accent. But now, with a couple decades’ worth of hindsight, maybe casting Reeves as the naïve young solicitor was a stroke of genius. After all, Harker’s basic role in the plot is to serve as a dopey counterpoint to the seductive Count (Gary Oldman) as Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Winona Ryder), is tempted by sanguine immortality. And if Harker is just as sensual and sophisticated as the Count, then the temptation isn’t nearly as tempting, is it? With that in mind, perhaps the writer who called Reeves’ performance “a dreary, milky nothing” was actually paying him a compliment. [Katie Rife]
Don John, Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Keanu Reeves plays a rare villainous role in Much Ado About Nothing, as the dastardly Don John. Although Reeves had already hit the heights of Johnny Utah a few years earlier in Point Break, he then floundered through Dracula and continued his battle with historic material in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian comedy. Reeves tries to state plainly about this John’s character: “It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain”—miserable about his lowly status as “The Bastard Prince” when compared to his half brother Don Pedro’s position (not to mention the ease with which Denzel Washington adapts to Shakespeare), Don John sets out to destroy the lives of everyone around him, including keeping main couple Hero and Claudio apart. While the name “John” usually indicates a trustworthy sort, the addition of “Don” (actually a noble Spanish title) suggests the legend of Don Juan, a notoriously immoral womanizer. While Reeves’ true crime in the movie was mangling Elizabethan English while wearing leather pants, fortunately for his film career, Speed was only about a year away. [Gwen Ihnat]
A Trade Of All Jacks
Jack Fenton/Jack-Be-Nimble, Babes In Toyland (1986)
Keanu Reeves’ role as “Jack-Be-Nimble” in the trippy yet execrable 1986 TV movie Babes In Toyland is meant to evoke various appearances of the name “Jack” in nursery rhymes, fitting in with similar literary-named characters like Mary Contrary, Mother Hubbard, and Georgie Peorgie. The movie is (vaguely) based on Glen MacDonough’s original operetta about a fight for power in a magical land of toys and candy, but with cut-rate, Wizard Of Oz-via-garage-sale scenery and delivery. At this early stage in his young career, Reeves’ delivery was rather wooden itself, which made Babes lines like “For the sake of Toyland!” a fairly easy sell. Babes In Toyland was also a rare Keanu Reeves musical, in which he’s forced to sing an ode to Cincinnati along with co-star baby Drew Barrymore; in most of the movie’s broadcast viewings, the musical numbers are mercifully cut out. [Gwen Ihnat]
Jack Traven, Speed (1994)
In Speed, Keanu Reeves plays Jack Traven, a name meant to evoke both travel—Speed involves little else but transportation, as crises erupt on various means of getting from one place to another like an elevator, a bus, and a train—and a Jack-of-all-trades sensibility. There’s only one person in L.A. actually heading toward the bus that will blow up if it hits under 50 mph, and it’s our Jack, determined to save as many people as humanly possible from evil bomber Howard (Dennis Hopper). Flirting with a pretty woman (Sandra Bullock), decapitating the bomber and making a quick joke about it (“He lost his head”), getting a city bus to fly over a large gap in the highway; there’s almost nothing the Jack can’t accomplish over the course of Speed, setting up Reeves’ action career for the next several years. [Gwen Ihnat]