Showbiz careers have no logic because there are too many unpredictable factors: audiences’ fickle tastes, industry perceptions and, of course, luck. But even given the elusive nature of career success, Keanu Reeves is unique.
For one thing, he is stronger than ever after a 35-year career, showing a longevity that might have surprised even his ardent supporters in the 1980s.
Most actors would be thrilled to have one successful film franchise, but Reeves — who celebrates his 57th birthday on Sept. 2 — has three: “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” which in 1989 established him as a comedy actor; plus “The Matrix” (1999) and “John Wick” (2014), both of which put him in the pantheon of action heroes (also including the 1994 “Speed,” though he avoided the sequel).
Reeves, who is of Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Irish and Portuguese heritage, made his professional debut in 1984, with small roles in various TV series, then made his big-screen bow in “Youngblood” (1986), which tapped into his skill at hockey.
He began working with A-list directors including Bernardo Bertolucci (“Little Buddha”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break”), Francis Coppola (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) and Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons”). But he had inhabited the role of Ted in the 1989 comedy “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” so naturally that audiences for a time thought his startlingly accurate portrayal of a stoner airhead was his actual personality.
Though Ted has become an enduring favorite, Variety recognized Reeves’ charm, but wasn’t entirely sold when the film opened in 1989. “Not since Sean Penn’s send-up of an airhead California high-schooler in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ has the screen seen young characters as witlessly appealing as this pic’s Bill and Ted,” Variety’s reviewer wrote. “Keanu Reeves, with his beguilingly blank face and loose-limbed, happy-go-lucky physical vocabulary, and Alex Winter, with his golden curls, gleefully good vibes and ‘bodacious’ vocabulary, propel this adventure as far as they can.”
Just a few years later, audiences found out Reeves could also be an action star. In 1994, Variety’s review of “Speed” confirmed what “Point Break” had first shown: Reeves could play take-charge characters and carry a film. The review of “Speed” said he was “appealingly and surprisingly forceful.”
On Jan. 12, 1995, Variety did a roundup of Hollywood’s big players from the previous year and began his profile by saying, “It’s time to take Keanu Reeves seriously.”
The article continued, “People preferred to think of him as the spaced-out characters he embodied. … And when he was really good in ‘My Own Private Idaho,’ people preferred to believe he was simply playing himself.”
Throughout it all, Reeves maintained his privacy. The public likes to define stars, creating images in their minds of what Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are like, even if those images are wrong. Reeves doesn’t give the public a lot of info; in 2019, GQ called him “Hollywood’s most enigmatic leading man.”
Reeves doesn’t talk about himself so he lets the films talk for him. There are recurring themes of mysticism, Eastern philosophy, martial arts and the effects of modern technology, in his mega-hits as well as others such as “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995), “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008).
He’s directed one film, 2013’s “Man of Tai Chi,” and he’s produced several movies, including “Side by Side” — about digital and photochemical film creation — and a documentary about his rock group Dogstar.
He also makes offbeat choices. That includes a 1995 stage appearance as Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg.
Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s magazine wasn’t completely won over, but was impressed by some aspects, including “the ingenuous lilt to his voice, the blank sense of disconnection that he projects and his valiant efforts to overcome it — those qualities make him a more suitable casting choice for Hamlet than he might at first seem.”
Johnson also reported that the star “seemed to charm everyone, from crew members to people on the street. They said he is friendly, humble, accessible, hardworking.”
Some of his more recent roles were surprising, such as guest appearances on a TV series (“Swedish Dicks,” starring his friend Peter Stormare).
But somewhere along the way, he became a huge favorite of a new generation of fans, and leaned into his meme-god status, spoofing himself in the 2016 Key & Peele comedy “Keanu,” in Nahnatchka Khan’s Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe” and in the Zach Galifianakis vehicle “Between Two Ferns.”
Public affection for Reeves exploded with those latter two films in 2019, plus the third “John Wick.”
At age 57, with a career of 35-plus years, he is ripe for life achievement honors, and getting close to the status of national treasure: People don’t pretend to understand him but they like him. And they take him seriously.