Killing Them Softly: The Fascinating, Transcendent Career of Keanu Reeves

“People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer … but now, yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.”

John Wick: Chapter 2 is right around the corner (buy your tickets here). Which can only mean one thing. That's right. It's John Wick Week!

Career resurrections aren’t supposed to happen the way they have for Keanu Reeves. While Hollywood studios make their mark on reboots and sequels, the probability that an actor can bounce back after a decade in Hollywood studio exile is slim to none. A director like M. Night Shyamalan can do it because his films are low-risk, high reward (consider that Split cost $9 million to make, or roughly half of Brad Pitt’s average take per film) However, for an actor your career is done when Hollywood says you’re done. Keanu Reeves understands this painful reality but he has never played by the industry’s rules. It’s because of this that, like his titular character John Wick, Reeves has decided to blow the roofs off the industry and let people know he’s the one calling the shots.

All due respect to Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and a handful of other actors, but there is something much more satisfying about seeing Reeves’s return as the face of a franchise. The buzz surrounding John Wick marks a return to the days of the true shoot-em’-up action films and was the toast of 2014’s Fantastic Fest. But it wasn’t too long ago that critics were bemoaning the presumed end of Reeves’ career as a leading man. Yes, he had Speed and The Matrix franchise, to name a few, as trophies on his mantle, but acting roles aren’t awarded based on a collective meritocracy. Memories are short, especially when it comes to profit margins, and what many remembered is that he had missed with 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2013’s 47 Ronin. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t being chased down to star in tentpole projects. Even Reeves admitted as much.

“I haven’t been getting many offers from the studios,” Reeves said in a candid 2014 Indiewire interview. “It sucks, but it’s the way it is.” It’s hard to imagine Tom Cruise deliver such a revealing quote, primarily because he casts a larger-than-life, sanctimonious attitude. Yet, while the bankable Cruise was riding high on the Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher franchises, Reeves found himself falling out of turn for vehicles like the 2016 Passengers, starring “It” actors Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, which he had lobbied for since 2007. Reeves was a ship with no pier, and there was a moment in time when it looked like he had become a breath in meme culture. Internet “art” had begun to imitate life.

For Reeves to thrust himself back into the conversation as a leading man, he had to return to the atmosphere he has always felt most comfortable in; as an outsider. John Wick was that and more - a metaphor for Reeves’ re-entry into the Hollywood circle, and his turn as a brutal retired super-assassin was a shock to us all. It was not unlike Reeves himself: remarkable and hard to define. Placed within the current landscape of Hollywood, John Wick initially felt outside of Keanu’s territory, but now it almost feels like a foregone conclusion when you consider the roles Reeves has chosen throughout his career.

The characters that Reeves is most noted for all have a connective thread; they’re characters looking to break the system. Matt in his breakout role of the 1986 shocker River’s Edge, The Matrix's Neo, the Bill & Ted franchise’s Ted Theodore Logan, Point Break's Johnny Utah, The Replacements' Shane Falco, A Scanner Darkly's Bob Arctor, and yes, even Hardball's Conor O’Neill all overcame hurdles by bending the limitations of the world around them. Part of his ability to so easily leap across genres comes from his malleable nature, or as a quote from one of Reeve’s classic films reminds us, “it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” It’s not hard to imagine that Reeves sees a bit of himself in those characters. He has never been one to embrace the spotlight. While other leading men revel at every turn to speak their minds on matters of cinema, politics, and beyond (Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck are nearly as noted for their personalities and takes on arenas outside of film as they are in it), Reeves spent a good portion of his indefinable career playing bass in Dogstar and scripting text for books like Los Angeles artist Alexandra Grant’s Ode to Happiness.” When you combine his slight aversion to play by the rules required to be a star, you can understand why it was a matter of time before he fell out of the pecking order of a circle that is always fighting for attention. It only makes his return to the top that much more satisfying. Keanu Reeves is an entertainer you want to succeed and also a student of his craft. If you haven’t seen the documentary Side by Side, in which Reeves narrates and interviews directors such as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan, you’re missing out on a critical examination of the impact digital technology is having on cinema. To top it all off, his directorial debut, The Man of Tai Chi, was a solid entry into the martial arts genre, and he continues to push the envelope by working with directors like The Neon Demon's Nicolas Winding Refn.

While Reeves’ Hollywood revival comes as surprised to some the reality is that he, like his timeless looks, hasn’t changed all that much. The quality Keanu Reeves has always brought to the table that so many other entertainers are missing is at the same time both straightforward and surprisingly difficult to possess; that is to say that all the great Keanu Reeves movies are fun. Even Reeves’ trademark accent (okay, Reeves’ accent especially) is a thrill to imitate.

Reeves will always refuse to be categorized in a singular genre, and just in case you needed a textbook example that he is someone who’s in on the joke while simultaneously getting the last laugh, remember that Reeves did voice-work as the eponymous kitten in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Keanu. He also is considering a return to the Bill & Ted franchise, which immediately lights the pilot of anyone with a nostalgic flame for the '90s. It’s for that reason, and many others, that it’s so easy to enjoy his body of work. Keanu Reeves is one of the most credible entertainers of the last thirty years but doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s long past time we start.

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