Keanu’s understated demeanor and humility, combined with the Sad Keanu meme and reddit love (for having done things like giving part of his earnings to the rest of the crew on his movies), have won him at least a begrudging respect from even the most hardened and dismissive critics of Keanu. A common refrain now, after years of being the dumb Ted Logan or the wooden Neo, is that, well, Keanu seems like maybe he’s a great person, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good actor!
Let me attempt to convince you otherwise.
My exposure to Keanu at an early age took the form of watching Parenthood over and over because it was on TV all the time. That movie, an under-rated film (and, I must digress, was a significant influence in my life as it showed me the dysfunctionality of families well before I was able to see it in the families around me, due to my age and immaturity), came out in 1989 which was also the year the original Bill and Ted came out.
I don’t know which film influenced this doofus young dude character the most but Keanu as Tod in Parenthood was one of the first indications of Keanu as a sweet, innocent, misunderstood character, as he played what seemed to be a trouble-making, trouble-attracting boyfriend who actually ends up helping to bring a family together. He played Tod and Ted, I might add, after being a character in Dangerous Liaisons (with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, et al).
Ted dominated the early 90’s (note that somehow he ended up a timeless film with George Carlin), and in my childhood I would watch Bill & Ted in their animated cartoon show. Yes, that’s Keanu, animated. How many actors were animated before digitization became a thing?
Strangely as a college kid I didn’t follow films that much but I did fall in love with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features some of Keanu’s most infamous acting work as a ridiculous Jonathan Harker. Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, and Little Buddha I didn’t experience until I was much older.
Speed took Keanu out of the Ted phase of his career and into an older, more wooden phase in which he wasn’t perceived as a goofy kid anymore, but just a bad actor. Some other classic films did little to change his reputation but he managed to accomplish a lot: a William Gibson novel (Johnny Mnemonic), a film with Charlize Theron and Al Pacino as a badass Satan (Devil’s Advocate), a scab quarterback in The Replacements (with Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, and yes, a younger Jon Favreau!), and some poor attempts at blockbusters (Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman) and Feeling Minnesota (with Cameron Diaz and the great Dan Akroyd).
I’m just covering the facts here, ma’am, but it’s to get us on the same page. You probably loosely know this history up to this point, since it’s the foundation for much of the criticism of Keanu’s acting chops. Even my argument that few actors have worked in such a wide range of roles with such a high caliber of fellow actors is not enough to convince many.
I bring it up because I think like most projects of creation, it is interesting to see which people tend to end up working with each other. I figure even the most assholish of assholes will get at least one big chance to work on a project with other talented types, but unless that person is just a pure genius and everyone knows it, it’s unlikely that others will want to pick that person again.
I tend to think of Kanye as that ridiculously creative, assholish genius, while I think of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up as a person who had one chance to work with a group of friends but turned them off. I’ve read that the Knocked Up cast thought Heigl was a total stuck-up bitch and that reputation has followed her since — like, how could you not enjoy hanging out with the Apatow crew?
The fact that Keanu in his career has been able to work with so many different actors of high esteem is a pretty good indicator that he’s a pleasure to work with and, based on the stories revolving around him, an inspiration to be around. This guy is the definition of a force multiplier who makes those around him better, even if his own qualities can be somewhat indeterminate (and this is a common theme among my favorites: Tyson Chandler, Paul Walker, Kenneth Manimal Faried, and my best friends, as examples). Keanu reportedly took pay cuts in Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements to land Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.
But does that make him a great actor? No!, most detractors would say.
So, let me get to the meat of my argument. And I’m going to need to make a personal parallel here. Keanu is a halfie like I am. He’s mostly Canadian, but of mixed descent. Some British. Keanu is half-white, half-Hawai’ian/mutt. Born in Lebanon, raised by his mom with several stepdads around.
I am mostly American, some Brit (by my Brit parents). Half-Asian, half-white. Raised mostly American but with some tiger mom ideals. I was quickly outpaced by my advanced classmates (mostly Asian) in middle and high school, but I didn’t fit in with the rest of the student body, and while I enjoyed sports I was stuck in right field or last spot on the tennis team.
So with all that in mind, I began to notice I identified with Keanu in a key respect: he tends to play the role of the outsider come to help the community deal with and resolve its problems. And if you look at things this way, you’ll see a whole new side of acting and of Keanu open up.
Here we see Tod, healing his girlfriend’s small family by teaching the young son without a father that his entree into puberty is not abnormal. Shane Falco as the quarterback of a bunch of scrubs who get a chance at filling in where they don’t belong. Harker traveling to Transylvania to be a liaison between the modern world and the mystical world. Siddhartha himself, the man who sought to leave the gates of elite security and see how his people truly lived.
This helps to explain the interpretation of his acting as well, certainly. For him to be an outsider means that he did not grow up with the same cultural imprinting, ritual, and mannerisms as the rest of the community. He is going to be perceived as not acting “normally” or quite human enough. He is foreign, he is weird. This I identified with very strongly since the most common characterization of me is that I am non-emotive and stoic — but this never quite resonated with me because within myself is a complex torrent of insecurities, feelings, and understandings about the relationships occurring around me.
In Keanu’s more recent films, the outsider theme is even more prevalent. In 47 Ronin, Keanu is a half-Japanese, half-white subservient mystical nature outcast who is treated with contempt by the samurai around him. Says one of the characters, “I would rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed.”
Perhaps the perfect role for Keanu under this intepretation was as Klaatu, the stoic alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still who comes to Earth in human form to warn humans that we are on a path of self-destruction.
The Life-Weary Veteran
There’s a theme of Keanu as detective and beaten-down veteran, or as a technical expert. Detectives are, culturally, those who investigate the other side in order to unravel the truth that has been hidden away.
His efficient, calm demeanor actually suits him well as a head-shotting ex-hitman in John Wick:
As a detective in A Scanner Darkly, Keanu’s character breaks down as he loses his ability to maintain identity. and is rotoscoped (how many actors have been rotoscoped?) by Richard Linklater (a triumphant director of our time) based on a Philip K. Dick book. Keanu is enmeshed into the fabric of our age, are you getting the picture yet?
He plays an exhausted truth-seeker forced into his trade in Constantine, Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick (though this also fits his villainous Street Kings and Man of Tai Chi roles), and of course Point Break.
Now, Point Break is legendary (Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and Point Break are spectacular — Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty seem very different and distant). It wasn’t always, but it’s quotable now. And, I’m very happy to say, it was playing the day of my wedding when I was with my groomsmen waiting for the ceremony to start. I AM AN FBI AGENT!, a line both praising and mocking our hero.
Arrogance is exhausting to deal with when I hear it in others. Look how Keanu phrases things. It’s refreshing. “I get to play Kai” (about 47 Ronin). On his most recent reddit AMA: ” Thank you everyone for spending some time with me. It was great to spend some time with you.” An older reddit AMA was entitled “Ask me, if you want, almost anything”. He is asking for your permission and is grateful for it.
The Blind Mystic
There is, obviously, the Neo phase of Keanu’s career, when the mocking progressed from Speed to WHOA. Thomas Anderson as the office drone. But let’s look at The Matrix within this context: Keanu’s girlfriend had miscarried their child shortly before, and then not too much longer afterwards, they had broken up and she had died in a car accident. Since then Keanu has not really had serious relationships at least that we know of, and he’s seemed to exist in a separate plane more than ever since.
With this in mind, consider the scene where Trinity dies:
Keanu, blinded, but omniscient of Agent Smith, the robots, his mortality, and his Jesus metaphor (“table for 12”). That’s a powerful scene and no one else fits it better than Keanu does, as a human and as an actor.
So now we can begin to see depth in Keanu’s acting and in his role choices. His most recent shift to gunkata, martial arts, and killing somewhat parallels Liam Neesonian films after Neeson’s wife died.
Next he will be in a TV mini-series John Rain, in which he’s an ex-Special Forces (near and dear to my own heart) ex-CIA assassin-for-hire, based on a book character of the same name who is half-Japanese, half-American. It’s like the perfect damn role for him.
The Fellow Sufferer
Keanu understands the human condition, such as this comparison to the trials of life being like quicksand:
As Siddhartha, he chose to see death instead of comfort:
Naturally he chose the red pill:
He’s been somewhat aloof about his alter-ego, Sad Keanu
but he’s aware of how others perceive him, such as in his picture book Ode to Happiness, which my brother thoughtfully got me for Christmas last year:
Do you see now, Neo? What you know you can’t explain, but you feel. It’s there, like a splinter in your mind. Keanu Reeves is Hollywood’s best outsider, the definition of the role, the person who crosses boundaries between realms, who fits in neither here nor there. He has traveled the world in search of truth, and he sets an example for us all to be better people through his roles and his personal deeds.
To me, any small sliver of all this puts him up there in terms of acting, but altogether, how could you argue differently? Perhaps I look up to what he represents more than most, and identify with his feelings of alienation and isolation but deep sympathy with the human condition, but I hope that others see him the same way.
And with that, what’s a better way for me to sign off than with this Johnny Utah/Ferris Bueller (one of my top 3 films of all time) mashup?