There was once a time – many, many moons ago – when Keanu Reeves was thought by many to be little more than a cardboard-cutout Hollywood lunk. Read old reviews of his work, and there’s a sense that nobody knew quite how seriously to take him – either surprisingly soft for such a lethal unit, or surprisingly tough for a man with such a gentle energy. But the key to the Tao of Keanu is that he is all things at once. He started out as a goofball, then hardened into a streamlined, teeth-gritted action star, before reinventing what it even meant to be a streamlined, teeth-gritted action star.
Over the last three decades he’s found a way to be both soft and rough, cosmic and earthy. He has the spaced-out aura of The Dude until the very moment a switch flips in his head, and he goes into the I-must-break-you mode which has left piles of bad lads beaten in his wake. He is Ted; he is Neo. He is a doofus; he will kill you using a library book. And tying it all together is the sense that, underneath it all, he very earnestly believes in whatever his characters are doing. Keanu Reeves doesn’t do irony, but he does slowly dawning disbelief like nobody else. His superpower isn't dodging bullets – it's really meaning it. From his action classics, to his daffy comedies and his most self-aware role ever, read Empire’s list of the best Keanu Reeves movies.
10) Always Be My Maybe
The film that really crystallised the Reeves-vival (we’re coining it now). In Nahnatchka Khan’s romantic comedy he cameos as a version of himself, putting the fear of God into Randall Park’s Marcus as his crush Sasha’s (Ali Wong) new boyfriend – a fun idea, beautifully executed. Reeves swishes in to a pretentious restaurant all slow-mo, throwing out air kisses, shaking hands, dropping jaws – and, indeed drawers – in custom Tom Ford and Damien Hirst glasses with no lenses. “I missed your soul,” he growls between snogs. “I missed your spirit. I missed your heart. I missed your smell.” Even Marcus’ girlfriend Jenny admits she’s starstruck. “The only stars that matter,” Reeves says, “are the ones you look at when you dream.” Delicious. It’s a perfectly judged bit of simultaneous piss-taking and myth-making – bolstering Reeves’ status as One Of The Good Guys, launching 1000 GIFs, and inspiring Park’s character to write catchy hip-hop song ‘I Punched Keanu Reeves’ (sample lyric: “I’m telling you for real, I punched Neo / He could duck bullets but he couldn’t duck me”).
9) The Devil’s Advocate
By the late ’90s, Reeves had started looking for roles which stretched his abilities and swung for big ideas – including a well-received Hamlet – amid a couple of dud thrillers. (Mercifully he dodged the bullet that was Speed 2: Cruise Control, Neo-style). The Devil’s Advocate was a bright spot in that period. Reeves is Kevin Lomax, a defence barrister who takes on impossible cases. He’s exceptionally good – maybe too good. He’s never lost a case. And, wouldn’t you know, it’s because he’s unknowingly made a literal deal with the literal devil, as played with enormous relish by Al Pacino. There are various shades of Big Mad Nineties Al Pacino performances, and this one is particularly satisfying: he and Reeves face off in some sumptuous gothic settings, with Pacino bouncing very enjoyably off Reeves’ flailing, morally compromised Kevin.
Is Reeves’ John Constantine anything like the comics? Not a jot. Is it still a blast? You bet. With a free hand to pick pretty much anything he wanted as a first post-Matrix project, Reeves went for the obvious choice: a movie about an occultist who can speak to angels and demons, and gets roped in to a detective’s quest to solve the mystery of her sister’s death. Life, death and what awaits us in the great beyond are big themes in the Reeves filmography and this adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic book creation is the most overt and unusual exploration of them, crammed with ideas and angles and visions of fiery, hellish torment. Constantine the character isn’t your usual Reevesian empath or earnest straight man either: seeing a cynical, bitter Reeves who flips a demon his middle finger before trapping it inside a mirror and smashing it to a million pieces is pretty joyous. He’s got a knuckle duster studded with crucifixes! Come on!
Ron Howard’s comedy-drama – a parental odyssey via multiple generations of an extended family – has it all: laughs, tears, and Steve Martin making balloon animals. A highlight, though, is 24-year-old Keanu Reeves as the perpetually-lively Tod. To Dianne Wiest’s matriarch Helen, her daughter Julie’s (Martha Plimpton) boyfriend at first glance seems unsavoury, forever bouncing about, prone to dangerous drag racing and a fondness for taking sexy naked photos of himself and Julie. He is, though, a wise young man with hidden depths. The scene in which he talks with Helen’s unhappy, introverted son Garry (a 14-year-old Joaquin – then Leaf – Phoenix), then reporting back to Helen that Garry is now reassured that there’s nothing wrong with "slapping the salami", before going straight into a recollection of his own abusive father, is magnificently touching, revealing that there was so much more to the young Reeves than met the eye. The surfer dude was coming of age.
6) My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant puts one of the more oblique spins you’ll see on a couple of Shakespeare’s more oblique works – both parts of Henry IV – in this drifting, delicate story of unrequited infatuation, which pulls out one of Reeves’ most tender and thoughtful performances. River Phoenix is Mikey, a sex worker with a woozy, uncertain grasp on reality, who meets Reeves’ Scott while on a job and quickly falls for him as they set out on a frequently dreamlike journey to find themselves. Reeves and Phoenix – who got the part when Kiefer Sutherland decided he’d rather go skiing, and Reeves turned up at his house on a motorbike clutching the script – are both mesmerising. After the pair of them carefully carved and sanded away at an outline Phoenix put together, their campfire heart-to-heart became the centrepiece of the whole movie.
5) Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
If you’ve never seen the early audition tapes of Reeves and Alex Winter working out how best to be triumphant doofuses Ted Logan and Bill S Preston, seek them out. They’re absolutely on a wavelength, just two pals hanging out and getting bodacious: Reeves played the bass and liked motorbikes; Winter liked motorbikes and played the bass. Reeves doesn’t do comedy often, but he’s absolutely spot-on here with his slack-jawed, slack-brained goofiness. He’s Ted, one half of failing rock band Wyld Stallyns with his buddy Bill. They’re about to fail their history exam and be forced to split up, when a time-traveller pops by to warn them that the fate of the world rests on them passing the grade. So, they nick his time machine and bring history to San Dimas, California, via Napoleon, Socrates, Billy the Kid, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Genghis Khan and two medieval princesses. Excellence ensues.
4) John Wick: Chapter Two
Frankly, every John Wick film could make this list. But if you slipped us a big gold coin and forced us to pick just one? Chapter Two perhaps edges it. After the success of the first film – in which Reeves’ un-retired hitman kills a dozen people over the honour of his car and a much-mourned puppy – there’s a real sense of confidence here: tonally, in the action set-pieces, and in the character himself. Wick has the moves of Chuck Norris, the morals of Abraham Lincoln and the reputation of the abominable snowman – and that level of mythology tips over into the film itself, doubling down on the heightened, labyrinthine secret society of hitmen as Wick goes out to retrieve his stolen car and makes new enemies in the process. Most importantly, John Wick: Chapter Two is not just an action movie. It is An Action Movie. It does not stop. It will not yield. It barely pauses to wipe the splatter out of its eyes before it launches another splenetic ballet of brutality. The brawls are bigger, the action bolder, and the result even more overwhelming. Most importantly: he knows car-fu.
3) Point Break
The absolute peak of the Hot Keanu era. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie is, on one level, about an FBI mole who gets in with a bunch of surfers who are suspected of a string of bank robberies. On another, it’s all about the joy of abandoning yourself to your senses. Patrick Swayze’s king surfer Bodhi is all about living life right on the edge: “If you want the ultimate,” he says, “you've got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” Reeves’ ex-quarterback lunk Johnny Utah is initially a bit of a stiff, but comes around to the quasi-spiritual stuff while still wrestling with his responsibility to the law. The frisson between Bodhi and Utah still crackles, and Reeves manages to do both starchy and surfy with ease. Bigelow had to fight to get him cast as Utah, but in the end this was the making of one of Hollywood’s most durable action stars.
So purely effective and ingenious that it chopped elevator pitches down by whole minutes – “Think Speed, but on a hovercraft / in space / with a milk float” – Speed is a thriller built on the leanest of outlines. Bomb disposal expert Jack Traven is on a bus. The bus has a bomb on it. If the bus goes below 50mph, the bomb goes off. That’s it, for 116 white-knuckle minutes. Yes, Sandra Bullock is great. Yes, Dennis Hopper gnaws off large chunks of scenery. But Reeves’ Traven makes it all work: he’s a shark-eyed, teeth-gritted guy with no hobbies, no interests, and no life outside of making sure things don’t explode when they oughtn’t. Speed is not interested in Traven’s interior life; it is interested in a bomb on a bus. It’s funny too. Check the scene where an old lady pushes a pram in front of the bus. The bus smashes through it – but it turns out she was just taking some tin cans for a walk. “There was no baby,” Traven shouts. “It was full of cans!”
1) The Matrix
No film has contributed as much to the way we think about living simultaneously in real life and online as The Matrix, mixing Fritz Lang, John Woo, and Jean Baudrillard with a whirling style that bends time, space and your frontal cortex in knots. Reeves is Thomas Anderson, an office drone bored with his job and his life who keeps bumping into the same phrase: ‘the matrix’. A mysterious stranger, Morpheus, shows him the truth – he’s a prisoner in this false reality, and he’s needed to help the resistance and stop everyone being used as fleshy batteries by evil machines. Among theWachowskis’ incredible visuals and torrent of ideas, Reeves’ pale blankness is the still point around which everything else revolves. In 1999, The Matrix looked like the future; nearly a quarter-century on, it still feels like we’re running to catch up with it. Woah.