Since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 30 years ago, Keanu Reeves has appeared in almost every genre of film, worked with decorated directors and actors, performed the title role in Hamlet, toured with an alt-rock band, directed a Chinese-language martial arts film, and started his own book publishing company. His work, along with a recognizable name and a beautiful face, has garnered millions of fans but little academic attention. Ted Theodore Logan III still plagues the popular understanding of Reeves and in the words of a colleague: “Has any other bad actor been in so many good movies?”
This paradoxical star phenomenon inspired Bob Thompson and I to take Keanu Reeves movies seriously for the second season of our pop "trash" podcast, Critical and Curious, discovering themes of fluidity in gender and ethnicity that interrogate the concept of free will across 25 films.
Reeves’ earliest films tackle the gamut of male-male relationships, from the not-so-subtle bromance in Bill & Ted (1989, 1991) to the implicit homoeroticism of Point Break (1991) and the explicit homosexual relationships in My Own Private Idaho (1991). With women, “he was often the object of desire rather than the aggressive seducer” (Johnston, 1997, 130), simultaneously mounted and cuckolded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), A Walk in the Clouds (1995), Feeling Minnesota (1996), and Generation Um… (2012). Repeatedly, Reeves’ characters choose the status of beta-male and still come out on top.
Reeves’ mixed ethnicity also stands in contrast to the expectations of leading men, and, like the archetypical “magic mulatto,” his characters are uniquely positioned to save mankind through their ability to move between unsympathetic worlds (Johnny Mnemonic, 1995; The Matrix, 1999; Hardball, 2001; Constantine, 2005; The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008; 47 Ronin, 2013). However, they must actively choose the status of savior, thus revealing that we have free will but we cannot control the consequences of our actions, which, in the end, leaves us no choice.
Keanu Reeves is deliberate about his craft and uses popular underestimation to his advantage, making movies that interest him without the harsh critique of an expectant public. Interestingly, all of these trends continue through the character of John Wick, in which Keanu Reeves has achieved the ultimate opportunity to further diversify his oeuvre.
Johnston S. (1997). Keanu. Pan Books. London, UK.
“Asked what he thought set him apart from other young male actors, Keanu himself suggested that the point of comparison should perhaps be with actresses. ‘I can’t say that I have been totally different from other actors my age,’ he said. ‘I mean, I’ve always played the kind of male equivalent of the female ingenue. You know what I mean? I’ve always played innocents. That has been a recurring them e throughout my career. There’s only been a few instances wehre I didn’t play that role, I Love You To Death was one example. And Speed. Maybe My Own Private Idaho. My career through line is innocence, in a variety of different genres.’” (Johnston, 1997, 230)
April Wolfe called Point Break “the greatest female-gaze action movie ever” because of its “intimacy and equality” (2018). https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/stream-this-movie-point-break-717570/
Recently, Reeves has embraced his mixed heritage on screen, playing a “half breed” in 47 Ronin (2013), an English-speaking interloper in an all-Chinese cast in Man of Tai Chi (2013), and a cameo in the recent rom-com celebration of Asian American identity, Always Be My Maybe (2019), for which writer Ali Wong noted, “[Keanu] was flattered that we remembered he was Asian American” (2019). https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/06/always-be-my-maybe-netflix-ali-wong-randall-park-nahnatchka-khan/590818/