It’s time to place Keanu Reeves among the pantheon.
At this point the monumental evidence supporting Keanu Reeves’ status as an all-time great movie star almost obviates the need to state his case, but that which should go without saying does not always, and so here we are. A truly great star should seem to be an elemental part of the natural world, an unquestioned fact of existence. With that in mind, I offer the following argument:
Earth: John Wayne
Water: Harrison Ford
Fire: Tom Cruise
Air: Keanu Reeves
This is the Mt. Rushmore of Hollywood action movie stars. (Europe and Asia have their giants. They are not being slighted here. This is not that hot a take.) Like American presidents, some of them have problematic politics, but unlike American presidents, you can make unambiguous cases for all of them based on their actual body of work. Wayne defined one of the foundational genres of American cinema, the Western. And so, later, did Ford (yes, the space opera, whether you or he like it or not). Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. And then there is Keanu, as elusive, eternal, and connected to all things as the air.
His first iconic action role (Ted, of course, being an icon of another faith) was Johnny Utah, seeker of enlightenment, who encounters a bodhisattva closer to Steely Dan than bodhicitta. A cinema without Point Break is a colder, darker thing with a missing place where its center of joy should reside. The pairing of and interplay between Keanu and Swayze is a beautiful thing, which I’ve written on before, and powers one of the most endlessly fascinating popular films in living memory. At the end, it’s Keanu who emerges victorious, and it simply could not be any other way; flip the casting of the leads and the movie simply does not work, as Swayze’s certitude and nascent feral streak would clang with Johnny’s guileless, resolute pursuit of justice.
Speed presented a Keanu that, while a variation on a similar template as his character in Point Break, manifested as a seemingly different form of music. If we accept the (feloniously specious, but work with me here) premise that Johnny Utah is a Dan-ish jazz riff, then Jack Traven is the same guitar figure played as metal. Traven’s buzzcut and grandiose musculature are borderline generic action movie signifiers, but the template is fleshed out with the wholly unique stuff that is Keanu. The blurriness of Johnny Utah’s masculinity has been re-tuned into a focus so sharp it cuts. Jack Traven is a testosterone molecule. Keanu essays him as a hyper-caffeinated pinball, incapable of stillness, propelled by kinetic energy so inexhaustible it’s as if siphoned from another realm. And then there’s Speed’s “yippie ki-yay, motherfucker” moment, in which Dennis Hopper’s repeated insistence at the climax that “I’m smarter than you” before being decapitated by a passing light fixture, into whose path Keanu’s long arms thrust him, is countered by a hoarse “Yeah? Well I’m taller.” That’s the movie it is. He is its avatar.
Bridging the mystic and the muscular is The Matrix, which takes a metatextual bead on its lead (”Whoa….”) and in so doing turning Keanu into a literary tool. He is, at once, Everyman, superhero, and religious figure, at once seeker of enlightenment and endpoint of his own journey, problem and solution. The deliberate artificiality of both Neo and his surrounding world(s) dovetails neatly with that ineffable sense of the unreal, or of superseding reality, given off by Keanu as an actor. He’s a little too beautiful to be true, like it’s a special effect or a trick of the camera, and his gestures sometimes read as louder than his surroundings because, for lack of sufficiently descriptive language, no one else around is Keanu. The Wachowskis – of whom all this is also true – know just how to use him, as Neo, writing lines that sound just right when he says them, and seemingly design the films’ production to complement his form.
Finally, we have John Wick, with whose sequel we are soon graced. The Matrix trilogy felt at the time like the apex and summation of Keanu’s career, but John Wick is a reminder that thinking something like that about anyone when they’re 40, let alone Keanu, is dumb. Where the previous movies mentioned are in varying ways maximalist roller coasters, John Wick is a spare, lean, enterprise that consists entirely of “the good stuff” with none of the bad. (Well, they were a little harsh on the dog. But that’s literally one maybe-not-perfect thing in an entire movie.) The character itself is a distillation of purest Keanu action: the best there is, the Baba Yaga. Purely physical in a fascinating way to behold, and paradoxically not of this plane. John Wick is so fucking awesome Migos wrote a song about him.
You may argue that Keanu has been in some bad movies, but if you’re the type to argue this I’m curious why you’re reading this instead of telling a puppy he’s not a good boy or whatever it is you people do with your lives. Keanu is a glimpse of the best things in life and a prism to a plane beyond. He is the wind. He brings light, and life. At his best, no one is better, only equal. Amen.