Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that a little movie called The Matrix: Resurrections (2021) has graced theatres worldwide. It’s directed by Lana Wachowski and penned by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon. It stars Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, and the one and only Keanu Reeves.
Now, while Keanu’s portrayal of Thomas Anderson/Neo is iconic, he has embodied a plethora of other characters and aided in bringing many stories to life in his 35-year-long acting career as well. So, let’s go through some of his movies that I think are the best before topping off the list (not a ranking) with his latest feature film appearance.
Does that sound good? Then, let’s begin.
10. River’s Edge (1986)
Dubbed as “The Most Controversial Film You Will See This Year”, Tim Hunter’s film (written by Neal Jimenez) follows a group of teenagers in a small town in North California who discover that one of their friends, Jamie (Danyi Deats) has been murdered. And the murderer is a friend of theirs i.e. Samson ‘John’ Tollet (Daniel Roebuck). John initially confesses to Layne (Crispin Glover) and Matt (Keanu Reeves).
While Layne immediately starts thinking how he’s going to save John from the consequences of his crime, Matt goes into some kind of a shock, causing his emotional response system to shut down. When all this is revealed to the rest of the group, they react just like Matt, thereby leaving Layne and John in the delusional state that it’s more important to bury the fact that someone has been murdered than face the punishment for a grievous hate crime.
Although the movie is loaded with late 80’s stereotypes and mannerisms, its subject matter is so ahead of its time. Or maybe society as a whole hasn’t progressed a lot, especially in terms of how men perceive women, that the movie’s handling of that topic feels relevant. Either way, Hunter clearly states that if men are brought up in a patriarchal society and aren’t taught to empathize with others, they are going to support their male companions even if they’re charged with murder.
Through the women (and Keanu’s Matt), Hunter essentially shows what should be the ideal reaction to murder and desecration of a woman’s body, thereby generating some hope that it’s possible for people to filter out sexism despite living in an environment full of it. In more ways than one, River’s Edge is a coming-of-age movie with Reeves in a pivotal role. However, unlike other movies in the sub-genre, it has no intention of giving you a comfortable viewing experience. Everything is designed to shake you up so that you relay this cautionary tale to everyone in your vicinity.
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9. Point Break (1991)
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer W. Peter Iliff tell the story of a gang of robbers who wear rubber masks of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Their trademark style is to not touch the vault, only demand the cash the tellers have in their drawers, and never extend their stay beyond ninety seconds. Former Ohio State quarterback and rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to assist experienced agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to investigate this case.
Since the police don’t have any evidence to catch the perpetrators, Utah decides to act on Pappas’s hunch that the robbers are actually surfers and goes undercover to infiltrate one such group. During this process, Utah comes across Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the charismatic leader of a group of adrenaline junkies, who starts to hugely influence Utah. But conflict arises when Utah gets to know that Bodhi is actually one of the robbers and Bodhi realizes that Utah is an undercover officer.
Now, if you have watched any modern action movie in the past two decades that involves a cop and a thief, Point Break (and Michael Mann’s 1995 movie Heat) is basically the blueprint. It has tons of practical stunts. It is brimming with drama. It is shot gorgeously with every frame looking like it’s about to combust from that LA heat. Keanu Reeves is fantastic. Patrick Swayze is charming. Gary Busey is loud and hilarious. Lori Petty as Tyler is amazing.
It’s basically one of the best movies of all time. You know all that. I know all that. What you probably won’t know about (because I just got to know very recently) is that Point Break has very subtle homoerotic undertones, which is expressed via Utah and Bodhi’s framing and Howard Smith’s editing. The idea was put forth by critic Broey Deschanel in her video “Point Break and the Soft Masculinity of Action Movies”. And once you see it through that particular lens, the love triangle between Bodhi, Utah, and Tyler is quite hard to ignore. In fact, I would argue that it elevates the viewing experience.
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8. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
This Gus Van Sant drama is apparently loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. The narrative follows two friends, Mike Water (River Phoenix) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) who work for Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a middle-aged mentor to a gang of street kids and hustlers. Scott is the son of the mayor of Portland and is poised to inherit his father’s property when he turns 21. Mike thinks he comes from nothing and hence yearns to find his mother. So, Scott and Mike go off to Idaho to not just look for Mike’s mother, but find themselves as well.
I will be honest with you, at first glance, there is a distinct possibility that you are not going to like the movie. Because it is very abstract in its portrayal of love, friendship, identity, self-respect, and everything that’s needed to make a person feel somewhat complete. So, my advice will be to sit with it. Give it a few re-watches and you’ll be able to appreciate the nuances in the script, the editing, the cinematography, the direction, and of course Keanu’s and River’s acting. It’s impossible to analyze their performances in isolation since they’re two sides of the same coin. Yes, they are engaging in their individual scenes. However, when they’re together, things really light up and help you empathize with their characters’ tragic arcs.
7. Speed (1994)
Jan de Bont’s debut directorial opens with Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) holding an entire building hostage with explosives. While the police negotiate with him, Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Detective Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) try to rescue the people stuck in an elevator. They seemingly succeed by a hair. But Payne comes back with a vengeance by strapping a bomb to a bus that will explode once it reaches 50 miles per hour. And Payne informs Jack to take care of the situation all by himself and of course, demands a bunch of money. That’s basically it.
If the speed of the bus drops below 50 miles per hour, it blows along with several innocent passengers. If it goes over 50 miles per hour, the same result. It’s all up to Jack to figure out how he’s going to save all these people before the money reaches Payne. Because we all know that a villain never lets the hostages go when they get what they want.
In addition to this simple premise, the biggest reason why this movie works so well is because of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s (who plays Annie Porter, one of the passengers who drives the bus after the driver is injured) chemistry. It wasn’t revealed back then but in recent interviews, both Keanu and Sandra have admitted that they had a massive crush on each other. But neither of them actually confessed to each other.
That said, the energy between them is absolutely palpable in all the scenes they are in. The movie doesn’t force their underlying romance on the audience, which is always a good sign. So, you root for their survival, while subconsciously and organically hoping that they fall for each other. The action is obviously very thrilling and Keanu gives it his hundred percent. Also, it’s surprisingly emotional. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it but Harry Temple dies, thereby causing Jack to spiral out of control. I always know that scene is coming but I’m never prepared for it. And I cry with Keanu during every single one of my viewings.
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6. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Based on William Gibson’s story of the same name, the Robert Longo directorial is set in the dystopian future of 2021 (yes, our present). The premise is wild. So, I’ll just let the movie’s opening crawl do the talking: “Second decade of the 21st century. Corporations rule. The world is threatened by a new plague: NAS. Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, fatal, epidemic, its cause and cure unknown.
The corporations are opposed by the LoTeks, a resistance movement risen from the streets: hackers, data-pirates, guerilla-fighters in the info-wars. The corporations defend themselves. They hire the Yakuza, the most powerful of all crime syndicates. They sheath their data in Black ICe, lethal viruses waiting to burn the brains of intruders. But the LoTeks wait in their strongholds, in the old city cores, like rats in the walls of the world. The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired implants”. Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is a mnemonic courier.
First things first, I owe an apology to Mr. Keanu Reeves for sleeping on this movie. Because Johnny Mnemonic is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It precedes IPs like The Matrix (1999), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Cowboy Bebop (1998) which have been dubbed ground-breaking and iconic. But after watching Johnny Mnemonic, you’ll certainly find echoes of this movie in the aforementioned titles and many other movies and shows dealing with topics such as memory, over-dependence of technology, and corporations funding oppression.
Yet you won’t find a single mention of Johnny Mnemonic in any discourse about the history of the sci-fi genre. And I genuinely think that needs to be corrected. Coming to the character of Johnny, Keanu channels Johnny Utah from Point Break and Jack Traven from Speed, while unintentionally prophesying Neo’s inner turmoil after discovering a rabbit hole whose existence he didn’t even know. There’s a darkly comedic rant where Johnny complains about taking on this task and wanting to go back to his posh life, and Keanu really acts the hell out of it.
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5. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Based on Andrew Neiderman’s 1990 novel of the same name, the Taylor Hackford directorial (written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy) is about a wickedly successful lawyer named Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves). After winning a case by defending a confirmed child molester, he is invited to New York City to work for a major firm headed by John Milton (Al Pacino).
Soon after the move, Kevin’s wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) starts to suffer from horrific nightmares. And those visions are only aggravated by her loneliness caused by Kevin’s overwhelming amount of work. Mary Ann soon begins to suspect that everything about Milton and his firm is not what it seems. She relays the information to Kevin. But his ambition clouds his judgment and he continues to work for the firm. One day, things go terribly wrong and it’s revealed that Milton is actually Satan.
I think this is one of those rare occasions where Reeves has played a negative character. You can say that his villainy is overshadowed by Pacino. But he defends a molester, a murder, and he doesn’t believe his wife when she says she has been raped. On top of that, he gives in to vanity at the end, thereby showing that he hasn’t redeemed himself in any discernible way. So, he’s still a bad guy.
Reeves’s off-screen good guy persona and the apparent goodness in him makes it really hard to digest his character’s actions (yes, I am not a big fan of “separating the art from the artist”). However, he does a decent job of conveying Kevin’s sliminess, which is accentuated by the copious amounts of gel on his hair. Acting in front of Pacino and Theron is a daunting task. Still, Reeves holds his own against them while also crushing it during his solo scenes in the courtroom.
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4. Constantine (2005)
Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, and based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer series, this movie follows John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), an exorcist who goes around, well, performing exorcisms. But he isn’t doing it because he believes in humanity and desperately wants to save people who have been wrongfully damned. Actually, he is a suicide survivor and hence banned from going to Heaven if and when he dies.
So, he is trying to do enough good deeds and get a green light from God. This eventually leads Constantine into a seemingly open-and-shut case of suicide. However, upon further inspection with Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), he realises that the death in question is only a small part of a bigger picture which involves the son of Lucifer entering Earth. Why? To rule and cause death and destruction. The usual.
John Constantine wasn’t well-received when it was released. It was a box-office hit, as far as my knowledge of the box-office goes (making over $200 million on a budget of $70 million is a hit, right?). So, it baffles me that the production house didn’t go forward with a bunch of sequels. Now, it has become some sort of a cult classic. And people really want Reeves to take on the role again.
I don’t know where these people were back then when they needed to voice their appreciation for it. Because Constantine is one of the best superhero movies of all time with a brilliant performance by Keanu. I can watch him all day talk about religion, what it means, the faults of theism, the arrogance of atheism, while killing demons and ghouls in the most inventive ways possible. I would’ve loved to see him go toe-to-toe with Lucifer (Peter Stormare) and Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) again. I don’t know if I’ll get to. Reeves has said that he has tried to green-light sequels but his pleas have been rejected. But never say never, I guess?
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3. John Wick (2014 – 2019)
Created by Derek Kolstad, the story of John Wick has three chapters in it. For now. Because there are two other chapters currently in development. I’m not considering the video games or comics or TV series because I don’t have access to them and because only the films feature Keanu Reeves in his entirety. The movies follow John Wick (Reeves), born Jardani Jovonovich, who was raised as an assassin.
He was hugely respected and feared in the business, and was even named Babayaga or the one who is sent to kill the boogeyman. But he gives it all up after falling in love. Sadly, this chapter of happiness is cut short by his wife’s death. During his mourning period, his house is broken into and his dog (a gift from his wife) is killed, thereby aggravating him enough to come out of retirement and raise hell. That decision of course has grave consequences as he is forced to go on the run after breaking one of the many rules that govern the world of assassins.
When you think about it, the popularity of John Wick is quite surprising and how it was the movie out of all the movies in the world that re-catapulted Keanu to stardom. Because John Wick isn’t an original story. It’s an amalgamation of every assassin movie ever and every Western ever. Yes, the action in the movies cut through the clutter of over-edited, weirdly choreographed set pieces that Hollywood was normalizing and is still trying to normalize.
Kudos to Chad Stahelski and David Leitch for that. But it’s something about Keanu Reeves’s gruff demeanor and seeing him do all his stunts himself really did the trick. Nowadays, actors half his age opt for stunt doubles or don’t even show up to the training because they can. Which is totally okay if that’s what they want to do. However, that’s exactly why Keanu’s portrayal of a character as cliche as Wick gets so much love. With every installment, he throws himself off the deep end and sets a new standard for what can be done in the realm of action films without resorting to cheap tricks.
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2. Bill and Ted (1989 – 2020)
Created by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, the Bill and Ted franchise consists of three movies: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), and Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020). It follows William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves), two metal-head teenagers who aspire to make their band “Wyld Stallyns” successful. But their laziness prevents them from doing so.
When they’re on the brink of flunking out of high school and breaking up their band, they are confronted by Rufus (George Carlin), a time traveler. Rufus tells the duo that if they don’t continue with their dreams to make “Wyld Stallyns” a success, the utopian society from which he has come will simply cease to exist. This motivates Bill and Ted to continue their musical pursuit. However, in this journey, they are forced to face various kinds of antagonists who want the destruction of this utopian society.
For the sake of simplicity, I am restricting things to the three live-action movies only. Unlike a lot of franchises, every single entry in this series has been helmed by different directors: Excellent Adventure by Matheson and Solomon, Bogus Journey by Hewitt, and Face the Music by Dean Parisot. But Reeves has managed to maintain a level of consistency in his portrayal of the happy-go-lucky Ted.
This is quite admirable when you consider the massive time jump between 1991 and 2020. It’s easy to say that there’s not much nuance to Ted and he’s just channeling every single stereotypical stoner from the late ’80s and early ’90s. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that Reeves makes him an endearing beacon of positivity, which is something that the stoner stereotypes are not particularly synonymous with. Every single one of his line readings is effortlessly hilarious. And the range that he displays while portraying every single alternate version of Ted (especially in Face the Music) is mind-blowing.
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1. The Matrix (1999-2021)
Created by The Wachowskis (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski), The Matrix franchise is made up of four live-action films: The Matrix (1999), The Matrix: Reloaded (2003), The Matrix: Revolutions (2003), and The Matrix: Resurrections (2021). It has branches in the animated, video-game, and comic-book mediums. But since Keanu Reeves’s presence is the most prominent in the live-action films, let’s just stick to them.
As you all know by now, the series is set during post-apocalyptic times where the world has been taken over by the machines who have relegated humans to underground cities. With no access to solar power or water or any source of energy, the machines are essentially farming humans to keep themselves running. And to keep these inert humans stable, the machines keep them plugged to a virtual reality called the Matrix. However, the surviving humans fight to free these prisoners while searching for the One who has the power to end this conflict. That’s where Thomas Anderson/Neo (Keanu Reeves) comes in and cyberpunk shenanigans ensue.
Keanu Reeves’s portrayal of Neo is definitely one of the most influential performances of all time. Especially after Resurrections. He starts off as this blank slate who is constantly pushed to extremes because everyone believes that he can save humankind. But then he starts to think for himself and makes choices that the Ones preceding him didn’t. And Reeves’s commitment to essaying this transition is surprising and inspirational. I think that Chosen One characters were handled in a certain way before Neo and it completely changed after Neo.
However, in his latest appearance as the character, he seemingly throws away the rulebook he had helped to create. Since the story demands it, there’s a sense of longing in his eyes, which wasn’t there in the previous three Matrix movies. The lack of stoicism in Neo allows him to be more vulnerable. He is wary about his physical limitations (because even though Keanu looks ageless, he is aging), but he factors that into his performance very smartly. He can still do Kung-Fu on his own, so watch out for that. On top of all that, his chemistry with Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity is at an all-time high.