This week, John Wick: Chapter 2 hits theaters. It marks another successful action franchise for the always marginalized, never fully appreciated Keanu Reeves. Sure, these days, Reeves has finally been canonized by a few pockets of self-respecting movie nerds, but general consensus out there is he’s just a bad actor.
Even outside John Wick and the Matrix Trilogy Reeves has, more often than not, managed to find the perfect vehicle for his unique acting chops. And his decisions have been consistently interesting over the years, rarely boring moves outside that Bullock lake movie. Even when his movies fail (late 90s crap like Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction), the movies aren’t boring. Just bad. After all this is the dude who was awesome in Speed, and smart enough to pass up on Speed 2.
To celebrate Wick Week, let’s have some fun looking back at Reeves’ 10 best roles, or best movies, however you’d like to couch this thing. Enjoy…
Hank, The Neon Demon
Keanu Reeves has played some nasty villains before, but nothing quite as morally bankrupt or disturbing as the perverted slumlord in Nicolas Winding Refn’s twisted Hollywood fable. His Hank is morally the bottom of the barrel in a morally bankrupt film, which is impressive in and of itself. Reeves had to have fun playing such a scoundrel.
Matt, River’s Edge
In one of his earliest roles, Keanu plays a key cog in the wheel of a morally muddied story about high school students and murder. With a cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Ione Skye, and Crispin Glover as the de facto lead, it’s Reeves’ messy performance which captures the push and pull of the film’s complicated examination into what’s right and wrong, and what should be kept quiet.
Don John, Much Ado About Nothing
Keanu Reeves took his early success and parlayed it into some challenging roles. Some of them, like his turn as Jonathan Harker in Coppola’s Dracula adaptation, didn’t quite fit. But somehow, some way, Reeves playing the meddling villain in Shakespeare’s comedy worked. Reeves was clearly taking full advantage of doing The Bard, and even when his accent abandons him, he keeps the energy and menace high.
Kevin Lomax, The Devil’s Advocate
Taylor Hackford’s salacious Satanic fable is trashy good fun, and possibly the pinnacle of screaming, hamming Al Pacino. There’s nothing subtle about this film, from the allegory on down (oh the devil is an attorney? No way), and it pulls no punches when shit really starts to get crazy in the third act. Reeves’ Southern gentleman accent is dodgy, sure, but he really opens up in this role and he embraces the schlock of the story with terrific energy.
Ted, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
To be fair, this ranking should just include the character Ted for both Excellent Adventure and the sequel, Bogus Journey, which is superior to the first one in many ways. But this was where we first met Ted Theodore Logan, part of the rock duo Wyld Stallyns, the one being threatened with military school if he doesn’t pass history. It’s impressive that the Bill and Ted films even managed to work at all given their ridiculous plot.
Jack Traven, Speed
In between Johnny Utah and Neo, Reeves managed to squeeze in one of the greatest pure action films of all time. Speed is brilliant, because is manages to move at such a breakneck pace and keep the audience so breathless, they don’t even care about the absurd developments. Reeves’ Jack Traven is all cocky bravado, and it’s one of the his best physical acting performances.
John Wick, John Wick
The success of John Wick came as a surprise to just about everyone back in 2014. The film is, much like Speed, a pure action spectacle. But it also manages to subtly build a universe around its titular hero, who is seething with vengeance and anger. Reeves is lean and energetic here, and after about a decade of forgettable films, it was invigorating seeing him back in charge of a great potential franchise.
Neo, The Matrix
Aside from all the political mess surrounding The Matrix and Columbine (the film came out about three weeks before the school shooting), the Wachowski’s managed to alter the course of action cinema for good. The original film is borderline brilliant, and Reeves’ pliable hero Neo is a perfect messiah. It’s a shame they felt the need to make two sequels; does anyone remember anything in the third one?
Johnny Utah, Point Break
Look, this list isn’t about what role from Keanu Reeves deserves the most awards. It is, to some extent, all about which of his action star roles is more kickass than the other (although #1 here is a departure). That being said, there is nothing more iconic, more memorable in Reeves’ career than the Quarterback punk turned undercover surfing FBI agent. The mere mention of Point Break often generates chuckles from people, but they should appreciate it a little more. It’s a genuinely great action picture.
Scott Favor, My Own Private Idaho
In the same year Point Break came out, Keanu Reeves also managed to sneak in his best, most subtle, most emotionally textured performance in Gus Van Sant’s Portland street hustler adaptation of Henry IV. In a way then, this is Reeves’ first foray into Shakespeare. He plays Scott, the rich street hustler and the object of River Phoenix’s affection. Private Idaho is a film thriving on its own brilliant idiosyncrasies, and it’s the best pure acting in Reeves’ career.