There’s a scene in the outrageously entertaining new shoot-’em-up John Wick: Chapter 2 that winks at the enduring appeal of Keanu Reeves. Early into the movie, Reeves’ character, the unstoppable yanked-from-retirement assassin John Wick, flies to Rome on reluctant assignment. But before he can get down to grisly business, he has to secure the appropriate gear. In what might best be described as action cinema’s answer to the dress montage, Wick visits a series of specialist vendors, getting tailored for some tactical evening wear and trying out the latest in high-end weaponry. The joke is that, in the fantastical alternate universe of the John Wick movies, hit men have their own artisanal suppliers, catering to their refined fashion sense and taste in deadly accessories. Beneath that gag, however, the movie is also nodding to the way Reeves has basically built a whole career on, well, looking cool. His star power, at its purest, is cosmetic. He’s as much a fashion statement as whatever he ends up wearing.
That might sound disparaging, but it’s not meant to. Lord knows Reeves has taken enough heat over the years from critics; for about as long as he’s been a movie star, he’s also been the butt of jokes about his acting. He got his start playing various species of doofus—shaggy-haired teenage knuckleheads in dramas, comedies, and whatever genre Parenthood occupies. Even after he outgrew those kind of roles, the stoner/surfer bro reputation stuck, haunting his early attempts at a serious, “adult” acting career. (Echoing the common critical rap against the star, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman once referred to “the always disquieting sight of Reeves impersonating an intelligent grown-up.”) Those who didn’t confuse him for his character in Point Break—eternally young, dumb, and full of cum—often went further, joking that he was essentially playing himself in the Bill & Ted movies. Even the first-name basis so many took with Reeves carried an implicit burn: “Keanu” became a punchline in and of itself, a shorthand for vapidity.
To be honest, not all of the digs are entirely unfair. Reeves can be dreadful in the wrong role. He’s terrible at accents, for one. He looks lost—even comically out of place—when dropped into a costume drama or lavish period piece, as anyone who’s watched him struggle through his scenes as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula can attest. And when he’s cast as anyone’s love interest, he tends to default to a kind of lobotomized daze, like a robot struggling to approximate the appearance of human infatuation. When a Reeves performance goes wrong, it goes tragically wrong—the dialogue coming out in unemphatic bursts, as though he were delivering it phonetically. He can be as wooden, in other words, as his detractors insist.
Put Reeves in the right role, however, and his talents shift into clearer focus. More often than not, these are parts that rely on an intangible quality—a presence, rather than a gift for character work. Gus Van Sant recognized Reeves’ aura when he cast him as a Portland street hustler in My Own Private Idaho, harnessing a laconic cool—a cowboy-model seductiveness—integral to the movie’s portrait of unrequited affection. And the Wachowskis recognized the almost designer potential in Reeves’ lack of affect: Neo is more costume than person, a pair of shades and a trench coat in search of a character, but this actually makes sense for a mythical messiah revolutionary who’s like Jesus crossed with Che Guevara. Plus, he looks cool as hell. The Matrix feeds naturally into any lingering impression of Reeves as a empty vessel; “whoa” and “I know kung-fu” are gifts to anyone hoping to make that case. But it’s probably still his signature role, because it’s the one that capitalizes most on the fact that sometimes clothes really do make the man. This man, anyway.
Discussions of great screen acting frequently begin and end with the chameleons—those performers, like Daniel Day-Lewis, that dramatically shape-shift with every new role. Reeves, in his own pretty-boy space-cadet kind of way, comes closer to a traditional movie-star mold: He can fill a niche exceptionally, offering variations on a type. The guy excels at ciphers, at characters defined more by their actions than their words, their relationships, or their psychologies. (Why Michael Mann hasn’t cast him as some lonely underworld professional is a mystery worthy of The Architect.) The actor’s blankness can work like gangbusters when put in the proper context. In The Matrix, it takes on a Zen profundity, perfectly in sync with the movie’s fortune-cookie philosophy. In Speed, it scans as clenched-jaw conviction: Who has time to express a range of emotions when you’re on a bus that can’t slow down? In Point Break, it plays right into the film’s undercover-cop drama, like a mask underneath the mask, shielding Johnny Utah from the bank robbers that might see through his deception. And it’s perfectly suited to the man, the myth, the legend himself, John Wick, who’s barely human in his supernatural drive and abilities. (If anything ends up usurping The Matrix as the definitive pillar of Reeves’ oeuvre, it will be the John Wick series, because these films seem custom-built to his limitations: They cast him as a character that’s basically all attitude and style.)
Not coincidentally, all the above are action movies. Action is Reeves’ true calling, his ideal platform, because it puts a premium on physicality instead of dialogue. (He’s actually not too bad at comedy either—another genre where his sometimes awkward line-readings, alien charisma, and range of motion can pay off. See, for example, his Nic Cagian over- and underacting in Knock Knock.) Reeves has always been ideally suited to men of violence, looking as natural holding a pistol as he looks unnatural seated at a piano. But over the years, he’s also fashioned himself into a halfway credible martial artist; from famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who worked on the hand-to-hand showdowns in The Matrix, Reeves learned how to move like a fighter. He also gained a greater appreciation for the art of stunt work—a discipline he’s supported in front of the camera (the John Wick movies are directed by Chad Stahelski, his stunt double on The Matrix) and behind it (Reeves’ own directorial debut, Man Of Tai Chi, stars another Matrix stuntman, Tiger Chen).
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All that training has made Reeves a sturdy, reliable action star: Even when the movies are bad (Constantine) or baffling (47 Ronin), it’s hard to look away from the man at the center of them, who’s settled nicely into his wheelhouse. Which brings us back to that scene in the second John Wick, the one where our hero is trying out the merchandise. Besides demonstrating, with a sly meta nod, how much of Reeves’ success can be traced back to his look—not just his handsomeness, but also the mean figure he cuts in a suit—the montage also showcases his graceful, even poetic way with a firearm. He locks, loads, aims, moving fluidly in and out of fighting stance. It looks like muscle memory, like second nature. It looks like he was born to do this. It looks brilliantly cool. That’s a kind of great acting, too, isn’t it?