Keanu Reeves has been a movie star for more than 30 years, but it seems like only recently that journalists and critics have come to acknowledge the significance of his onscreen achievements. He’s had hits throughout his career, ranging from teen comedies (Bill & Ted’s) to action franchises (The Matrix, John Wick), yet a large part of the press has always treated these successes as bizarre anomalies. And that’s because we as a society have never been able to understand fully what Reeves does that makes his films so special.
In part, this disconnect is the lingering cultural memory of Reeves as Theodore Logan. No matter if he’s in Speed or Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Something’s Gotta Give, he still possesses the fresh-faced openness that was forever personified by Ted’s favorite expression: “Whoa!” That wide-eyed exclamation has been Reeves’s official trademark ever since, and its eternal adolescent naïveté has kept him from being properly judged on the merits of his work.
Some of that critical reassessment has been provided, quite eloquently, by Vulture’s own Angelica Jade Bastién, who has argued for Reeves’s greatness as an action star and his importance to The Matrix (and 21st-century blockbusters in general). Two of her observations are worth quoting in full, and they both have to do with how he has reshaped big-screen machismo. In 2017, she wrote, “What makes Reeves different from other action stars is this vulnerable, open relationship with the camera — it adds a through-line of loneliness that shapes all his greatest action-movie characters, from naïve hotshots like Johnny Utah to exuberant ‘chosen ones’ like Neo to weathered professionals like John Wick.” In the same piece, Bastién noted: “By and large, Hollywood action heroes revere a troubling brand of American masculinity that leaves no room for displays of authentic emotion. Throughout Reeves’s career, he has shied away from this. His characters are often led into new worlds by women of far greater skill and experience … There is a sincerity he brings to his characters that make them human, even when their prowess makes them seem nearly supernatural.”
In other words, the femininity of his beauty — not to mention his slightly odd cadence when delivering dialogue, as if he’s an alien still learning how Earthlings speak — has made him seem bizarre to audiences who have come to expect their leading men to act and carry themselves in a particular way. Critics have had a difficult time taking him seriously because it was never quite clear if what he was doing — or what was seemingly “missing” from his acting approach — was intentional or a failing.
This is not to say that Reeves hasn’t made mistakes. While putting together this ranking of his every film role, we noticed that there was an alarmingly copious number of duds — either because he chose bad material or the filmmakers didn’t quite know what to do with him. But as we prepare for the release of the third John Wick installment, it’s clear that his many memorable performances weren’t all just flukes. From Dangerous Liaisons to Man of Tai Chi — or River’s Edge to Knock Knock — he’s been on a journey to grow as an actor while not losing that elemental intimacy he has with the viewer. Below, we revisit those performances, from worst to best.
45. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
The nadir of the ’90s cyberpunk genre, and a movie so bad, with Reeves so stranded, that it’s actually a bit of a surprise the Wachowskis were able to forget about it and still cast him as Neo. Dumber than a box of rocks, it’s a movie about technology and the internet — based on a William Gibson story! — that seems to have been made by people who had never turned on a computer before. Seriously, watch this shit:
44. The Watcher (2000)
This movie exists in many ways because of its stunt casting: James Spader as a dogged detective and Keanu as the serial killer obsessed with him. Wait, shouldn’t those roles be switched? Get it? There would come a time in his career when Keanu could have maybe handled this character, but here, still with his floppy Ted Logan hair, he just looks ridiculous. The hackneyed screenplay does him no favors, either. Disturbingly, Reeves claims that he was forced to do this movie because his assistant forged his signature on a contract. He received the fifth of his seven Razzie nominations for this film. (He has yet to win and hasn’t been nominated in 17 years. In fact, it’s another sign of how lame the Razzies are that he got a “Redeemer” award in 2015, as if he needed to “redeem” anything to those people.)
43. Sweet November (2001)
It’s a testament to how cloying and clunky Sweet November is that its two leads (Reeves and Charlize Theron) are, today, the pinnacle of action-movie cool — thanks to the same filmmaker, Atomic Blonde and John Wick’s David Leitch — yet so inert and waxen here. This is a career low point for both actors, preying on their weak spots. Watching it now, you can see there’s an undeniable discomfort on their faces: If being a movie star means doing junk like this, what’s the point? They’d eventually figure it all out.
42. Chain Reaction (1996)
As far as premises for thrillers go, this isn’t the worst idea: A team of scientists are wiped out — with their murder pinned on poor Keanu — because they’ve figured out how to transform water into fuel. (Hey, Science, it has been 23 years. Why haven’t you solved this yet?) Sadly, this turns into a by-the-numbers chase flick with Reeves as Richard Kimble, trying to prove his innocence while on the run. He hadn’t quite figured out how to give a project like this much oomph yet, so it just mostly lies around, making you wish you were watching The Fugitive instead.
41. 47 Ronin (2013)
In 2013, Reeves made his directorial debut with a Hong Kong–style action film. We’ll get into that one later, because it’s a ton better than this jumbled mess, a mishmash of fantasy and swordplay that mostly just gives viewers a headache. Also: This has to be the worst wig of Keanu’s career, yes?
40. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)
Gus Van Sant’s famously terrible adaptation of Tom Robbins’s novel never gets the tone even close to right, and all sorts of amazing actors are stranded and flailing around. Reeves gets some of the worst of it: Why cast one of the most famously chill actors on the planet and have him keep hyperventilating?
39. Replicas (2019)
In the wake of John Wick’s success, Keanu has had the opportunity to sleepwalk through some lesser sci-fi actioners, and this one is particularly sleepy. The idea of a neuroscientist (Reeves) who tries to clone his family after they die in an accident could have been a Pet Sematary update, but the movie insists on an Evil Corporation plot that we’ve seen a million times before. John Wick has allowed Reeves to cash more random checks than he might have ten years ago. Here’s one of them.
38. Feeling Minnesota (1996)
As far as we know, the only movie taken directly from a Soundgarden lyric — unless we’re missing a superhero named “Spoonman” — is this pseudo-romantic comedy that attempts to be cut from the Tarantino cloth but ends up making you think everyone onscreen desperately needs a haircut and a shave. Reeves can tap into that slacker vibe if asked to, but he requires much better material than this.
37. Little Buddha (1994)
To state the obvious, it would not fly today for Keanu Reeves to play Prince Siddhartha, a monk who would become the Buddha. But questions of cultural appropriation aside, you can understand what drew The Last Emperor director Bernardo Bertolucci to cast this supremely placid man as an iconic noble figure. Unfortunately, Little Buddha never rises above a well-meaning, simplistic depiction of the roots of a worldwide religion, and the effects have aged even more poorly. Nonetheless, Reeves is quite accomplished at being very still.
36. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Quick anecdote: We saw this Kenneth Branagh adaptation of the Bard during its original theatrical run, and when Reeves’s villainous Don John came onscreen and declared, “I am not of many words,” the audience clapped sarcastically. That memory stuck because it encapsulates viewers’ inability in the early ’90s to see him as anything other than a dim SoCal kid. Unfortunately, his performance in Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t do much to prove his haters wrong. As an actor, he simply didn’t have the gravitas yet to pull off this fiendish role, and so this version is more radiant and alive when he’s not onscreen. It is probably just as well his character doesn’t have many words.
35. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
GIFs are a cheap way to critique a performance. After all, acting is a complicated, arduous discipline that shouldn’t be reduced to easy laughs drawn from a few seconds of film played on a loop. Then again …
This really does sum up Reeves’s unsubstantial performance as Jonathan Harker, whose new client is definitely up to no good. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a wonder of old-school special effects and operatic passion — and it is also a movie in which Reeves seems wholly ill at ease, never quite latching onto the story’s macabre period vibe. We suspect if he could revisit this role now, he’d be far more commanding and engaged. But in 1992, he was still too much Ted and not enough anything else. And Reeves knew it: A couple years later, when asked to name his most difficult role to that point, he said, “My failure in Dracula. Totally. Completely. The accent wasn’t that bad, though.” Well …
34. The Neon Demon (2016)
One of the perks of being a superstar is that you can sometimes just phone in an amusing cameo in some bizarro art-house offering. How else to explain Reeves’s appearance in this stylish, empty, increasingly surreal psychological thriller from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn? He plays Hank, a scumbag motel manager whose main job is to add some local color to this portrait of the cutthroat L.A. fashion scene. If you’ve been waiting to hear Keanu deliver skeezy lines like “Why, did she send you out for tampons, too?!” and “Real Lolita shit … real Lolita shit,” The Neon Demon is the film for you. He’s barely in it, and we wouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t even remember it.
33. The Lake House (2006)
Reeves reunites with his Speed co-star for a movie that features a lot fewer out-of-control buses. In The Lake House, Sandra Bullock plays a doctor who owns a lake house with the strangest magical power: She can send and receive letters from the house’s owner from two years prior, a dashing architect (Reeves). This American remake of the South Korean drama Il Mare is romantic goo that’s relatively easy to resist, and its ruminations on fate, love, destiny, and luck are all pretty standard for the genre. As for those hoping to enjoy the actors’ rekindled chemistry, spoiler alert: They’re not onscreen that much together.
32. Henry’s Crime (2011)
You have to be careful not to cast Reeves as too passive a character; he’s so naturally calm that if he just sits and reacts to everything, and never steps up, your movie never really gets going. That’s the case in this heist movie about an innocent man (Reeves) who goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit and then plans a scam with an inmate he meets there (James Caan). The movie wants to be a little quirkier than it is, and Reeves never quite snaps to. The film just idles on the runway.
31. The Bad Batch (2017)
Following her acclaimed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour plops us in the middle of a desert hellscape in which a young woman (Suki Waterhouse) must battle to stay alive. The Bad Batch is less accomplished than A Girl, in large part because style outpaces substance — it’s a movie in which clever flourishes and indulgent choices rule all. Look no further than Reeves’s performance as the Dream, a cult leader who oversees the only semblance of civilization in this post-apocalyptic world. It’s less a character than an attitude, and Reeves struggles to make the shtick fly. He’s too goofy a villain for us to really feel the full measure of his monstrousness.
30. Hardball (2001)
Reeves isn’t the first guy you’d think of to head up a Bad News Bears–style inspirational sports movie, and he doesn’t pull it off, playing a gambler who becomes the coach of an inner-city baseball team and learns to love, or something. It’s as straightforward and predictable an underdog sports movie as you’ll find, and it serves as a reminder that Reeves’s specific set of skills can’t be applied to just any old generic leading-man role. The best part about the film? A 14-year-old Michael B. Jordan.
29. Street Kings (2008)
Filmmaker David Ayer has made smart, tough L.A. thrillers like Training Day (which he wrote) and End of Watch (which he wrote and directed). Unfortunately, this effort with Reeves never stops being a mélange of cop-drama clichés, casting the actor as Ludlow, an LAPD detective who’s starting to lose his moral compass. This requires Reeves to be a hard-ass, which never feels particularly convincing. Street Kings is bland, forgettable pulp — Reeves doesn’t enliven it, getting buried along with the rest of a fine ensemble that includes Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, and a pre-Captain America Chris Evans.
28. Constantine (2005)
In post-Matrix mode, Reeves tries to launch another franchise in a DC Comics adaptation about a man who can see spirits on Earth and is doomed to atone for a suicide attempt by straddling the divide twixt Heaven and Hell. That’s not the worst idea, and at times Constantine looks terrific, but the movie doesn’t have enough wit or charm to play with Reeves’s persona the way the Wachowskis did.
27. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Reeves’s alienlike beauty and off-kilter line readings made him an obvious choice to play Klaatu, an extraterrestrial who assumes human form when he arrives on our planet. This remake of the 1950s sci-fi classic doesn’t have a particularly urgent reason to exist — its pro-environment message is timely but awkwardly fashioned atop an action-blockbuster template — and the actor alone can’t make this Day particularly memorable. Still, there are signs of the confident post-Matrix star he had become, which would be rewarded in a few years with John Wick.
26. Knock Knock (2015)
Reeves flirts with Michael Douglas territory in this Eli Roth erotic thriller that’s not especially good but is interesting as an acting exercise. He plays Evan, a contented family man with the house to himself while his wife and kids are out of town. Conveniently, two beautiful young strangers (Ana de Armas, Lorenza Izzo) come by late one stormy night, inviting themselves in and quickly seducing him. Is this his wildest sexual fantasy come to life? Or something far more ominous? It’s fun to watch Reeves be a basic married suburban dude who slowly realizes that he’s entered Hell, but Knock Knock’s knowing trashiness only takes this cautionary tale so far.
25. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Very few people bought tickets in 1997 for The Devil’s Advocate to see Keanu Reeves: Hotshot Attorney. Obviously, this horror thriller’s chief appeal was witnessing Al Pacino go over the top as Satan himself, who just so happens to be a New York lawyer. Nonetheless, it’s Reeves’s Kevin Lomax who’s actually the film’s main character; recently moved to Manhattan with his wife (Reeves’s future Sweet November co-star, Charlize Theron), he’s the new hire at a prestigious law firm who only later learns what nefarious motives have brought him there. Reeves is forced to play the wunderkind who gets in over his head, and it’s not entirely convincing — and that goes double for his southern accent.
24. The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988)
“You are like some stray dog I never should have fed.” That’s how Rupert’s older hippie pal, Carla (Amy Madigan), affectionately refers to him, and because this teen dropout is played by Keanu Reeves, you understand what she means. In this forgotten early chapter in Reeves’s career, Rupert and Carla decide to ditch their going-nowhere Rust Belt existence by taking his dad (Fred Ward) hostage and collecting a handsome ransom. The Prince of Pennsylvania is a thoroughly contrived and mediocre comedy, featuring Reeves with an incredibly unfortunate haircut. (Squint and he looks like the front man for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Still, you can see signs of the soulfulness and vulnerability he’d later harness in better projects. He’s very much a big puppy looking for a home.
23. The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997)
Every hip young ’90s actor had to get his Jack Kerouac on at some point, so it would seem churlish to deny Reeves his opportunity. He plays the best pal/drinking buddy of Thomas Jane’s Neal Cassady, and he looks like he’s enjoying doing the Kerouac pose. Other actors have done so more indulgently. And even though he’s heavier than he’s ever been in a movie, he looks great.
22. A Walk in the Clouds (1995)
Keanu isn’t quite as bad in this as it seemed at the time. He’s miscast as a tortured war veteran who finds love by posing as the husband of a pregnant woman, but he doesn’t overdo it either: If someone’s not right for a part, you’d rather them not push it, and Keanu doesn’t. Plus, come on, this movie looks fantastic: Who doesn’t want to hang around these vineyards? Not necessarily worth a rewatch, but not the disaster many consider it.
21. The Replacements (2000)
The other movie where Keanu Reeves plays a former quarterback, The Replacements is an adequate Sunday-afternoon-on-cable sports comedy. He plays Shane, the stereotypical next-big-thing whose career capsized after a disastrous bowl game — but fear not, because he’s going to get a second chance at gridiron glory once the pros go on strike and the greedy owners decide to hire scabs to replace them. Reeves has never been particularly great at playing regular guys — his talent is that he seems different, more special, than you or me — but he ably portrays a good man who’s had to live with disappointment. The Replacements pushes all the predictable buttons, but Reeves makes it a little more enjoyable than it would be otherwise.
20. Tune in Tomorrow (1990)
A very minor but sporadically charming bauble about a radio soap-opera scriptwriter (Peter Falk) who begins chronicling an affair between a woman (Barbara Hershey) and her not-related-by-blood nephew on his show — and ultimately begins manipulating it. Tune in Tomorrow is light and silly and harmless, and Reeves shows up on time to set and looks extremely eager to impress. He blends into the background quietly, which is probably enough.
19. I Love You to Death (1990)
This Lawrence Kasdan comedy — the first film after an incredible four-picture run of Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, and The Accidental Tourist — is mostly forgotten today, and for good reason: It’s a farce that mostly features actors screaming at each other and calling it “comedy.” But Reeves hits the right notes as a stoned hit man, and it’s amusing just to watch him share the screen with partner William Hurt. This could have been the world’s strangest comedy team!
18. Youngblood (1986)
This Rob Lowe hockey comedy is … well, a Rob Lowe hockey comedy, but we had to include it because a 21-year-old Reeves plays a dim-bulb, good-hearted hockey player with a French Canadian accent that’s so incredible that you really just have to see it. Imagine if this were the only role Keanu Reeves ever had? It’s sort of amazing. “AH-NEE-MAL!”
17. Destination Wedding (2018)
An oddly curdled comedy about two wedding guests (Reeves and Winona Ryder) who have terrible attitudes about everything but end up bonding over their universal disdain for the planet and everyone on it. That sounds like a chore to watch, and at times it is, but the pairing of Reeves and Ryder has enough nostalgic Gen-X spark to it that you go along with them anyway. With almost any other actors you might run screaming away, but somehow, in spite of everything, you find them both likable.
16. Thumbsucker (2005)
The first film from 20th Century Women and Beginners’ Mike Mills, this mild but clever coming-of-age comedy adaptation of a Walter Kirn novel has Mills’s trademark good cheer and emotional honesty. Reeves plays the eponymous thumbsucker’s dentist — it’s funny to see Keanu play someone named “Dr. Perry Lyman” — who has the exact right attitude about both orthodontics and life. It’s a lived-in, funny performance, and a sign that Keanu, with the right director, could be a more than capable supporting character actor.
15. Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
This Nancy Meyers romantic comedy was well timed in Reeves’s career. A month after the final Matrix film hit theaters, Something’s Gotta Give arrived, offering us a very different Keanu — not the intense, sci-fi action hero but rather a charming, low-key love interest who’s just the supporting player. He plays Julian Mercer, a doctor administering to shameless womanizer Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), who’s dating a much younger woman (Amanda Peet), who just so happens to be the daughter of a celebrated playwright, Erica (Diane Keaton). We know who will eventually end up with whom in Something’s Gotta Give, but Reeves proves to be a great romantic foil, wooing Erica with a grown-up sexiness the actor didn’t possess in his younger years. We’re still not sure Meyers got the ending right: Erica should have stuck with him instead of Harry.
14. Man of Tai Chi (2013)
This is the only movie that Reeves has directed, and what does it tell us about him? Well, it tells us he has watched a ton of Hong Kong action movies and always wanted to make one himself. And it’s pretty good! It’s technically proficient, it has a straightforward narrative, it has some excellent long-take action sequences (as we see in John Wick, Keanu isn’t a quick-cut guy; he likes to show his work), and it has a perfectly decent Keanu performance. We wouldn’t call him a visionary director by any stretch of the imagination. But we’d watch another one of these, definitely.
13. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny is merely a pawn in a cruel game being played by Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, and so it makes some sense that the young man who played him, Keanu Reeves, is himself a little outclassed by the actors around him. This Oscar-winning drama is led by Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who have the wit and bite to give this 18th-century tale of thwarted love and bruised pride some real zest. By comparison, Danceny is practically a boy, unschooled in the art of manipulation, and Reeves provides the character with the appropriate youthful naïveté. He’s not a standout in Dangerous Liaisons, but he acquits himself well — especially near the end, when his blade fells Valmont, leaving him as one of the unlikely survivors in the film’s ruthless battle.
12. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)
In this incredible showcase for Robin Wright, who plays a woman navigating a constrictive, difficult life with more grace and intelligence than anyone realizes, Reeves shows up late in a role that he’s played before: the younger guy who’s the perfect fit for an older woman figuring herself out. He hits the right notes and never overstays his welcome. As a romantic lead, less is more for Reeves.
11. Parenthood (1989)
If you were an uptight suburban dad, like Steve Martin is in Ron Howard’s ensemble comedy, your nightmare would be that your beloved daughter gets involved with a doofus like Tod. Nicely played by Keanu Reeves, the character is the embodiment of every slacker screwup who’s going to just stumble through life, knocking over everything and everyone in his path. But as it turns out, he’s a lot kinder and mature than at first glance. Released six months after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Parenthood showed mainstream audiences a more grown-up Reeves, and he’s enormously appealing — never more so than when advising a young kid that it’s okay to masturbate: “I told him that’s what little dudes do.”
10. Permanent Record (1988)
A very lovely and sad movie that’s nearly forgotten today, Permanent Record, directed by novelist Marisa Silver, features Reeves as the best friend of a teenager who commits suicide and, along with the rest of their friends, has to pick up the pieces. For all of Reeves’s trademark reserve, there is very little restraint here: His character is devastated, and Reeves, impressively, hits every note of that grief convincingly. You see this guy and you understand why everyone wanted to make him a star. This is a very different Reeves from now, but it’s not necessarily a worse one.
9. Point Break (1991)
Just as Reeves’s reputation has grown over time, so too has the reputation of this loopy, philosophical crime thriller. Do people love Point Break ironically now, enjoying its over-the-top depiction of men seeking a spiritual connection with the world around them? Or do they genuinely appreciate the seriousness that director Kathryn Bigelow brought to her study of lonely souls looking for that next big rush — whether through surfing or robbing banks? The power of Reeves’s performance is that it works both ways. If you want to snicker at his melodramatic turn, fine — but if you want to marvel at the rapport his Johnny Utah forms with Patrick Swayze (Bodhi), who only feels alive when he’s living life to the extreme, then Point Break has room for you on the bandwagon.
8. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Before there was Beavis and Butt-Head, before there was Wayne and Garth, there were these guys: two Valley bozos who loved to shred and goof off. As Theodore Logan, Keanu Reeves found the perfect vessel for his serene silliness, playing well off Alex Winter’s equally clueless Bill. But note that Bill and Ted aren’t jerks — watch Excellent Adventure now and you’ll be struck by how incredibly sunny its humor is. Later in his career, Reeves would show off a darker, more brooding side, but here in Excellent Adventure (and its less-great sequel Bogus Journey) he makes blissful stupidity endearing.
7. The Gift (2000)
This Sam Raimi film, with a Billy Bob Thornton script inspired by his mother, fizzled at the box office, despite a top-shelf cast: It’s probably not even the first film called The Gift you think of when we bring it up. But, gotta say, Reeves is outstanding in it, playing an abusive husband and all-around sonuvabitch who, nevertheless, might be unfairly accused of murder, a fact only a psychic (Cate Blanchett) understands. Reeves is full-on trailer trash here, but he brings something new and unexpected to it: a sort of bewildered malevolence, as if he’s moved by forces outside of his control. More of this, please.
6. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s landmark drama is chiefly remembered for River Phoenix’s nakedly anguished performance as Mike, a spiritually adrift gay hustler. (Phoenix’s death two years after My Own Private Idaho’s release only makes the portrayal more heartbreaking.) But his performance doesn’t work without a doubles partner, which is where Reeves comes in. Playing Scott, a fellow hustler and Mike’s best friend, Reeves adeptly encapsulates the mind-set of a young man content to just float through life. Unlike Mike, he knows he has a fat inheritance in his future — and also unlike Mike, he’s not gay, unable to share his buddy’s romantic feelings. Phoenix deservedly earned most of the accolades, but Reeves is terrific as an unobtainable object of affection — inviting, enticing, but also unknowable.
5. Speed (1994)
Years later, we still contend that Speed is a stupid idea for a movie that, despite all logic (or maybe because of the utter insanity of its premise), ended up being a total hoot. What’s clear is that the film simply couldn’t have worked if Reeves hadn’t approached the story with straight-faced sincerity: His L.A. cop Jack Traven is a ramrod-serious lawman who is going to do whatever it takes to save those bus passengers. Part of the pleasure of Speed is how it constantly juxtaposes the life-or-death stakes with the high-concept inanity — Stay above 50 mph or the bus will explode! — and that internal tension is expressed wonderfully by Reeves, who invests so intently in the ludicrousness that the movie is equally thrilling and knowingly goofy. And it goes without saying that he has dynamite chemistry with Sandra Bullock. Strictly speaking, you probably shouldn’t flirt this much when you’re sitting on top of a bomb — but it’s awfully appealing when they get their happy ending.
4. River’s Edge (1987)
This film’s casting director said she cast Reeves as one of the dead-end kids who learn about a murder and do nothing “because of the way he held his body … his shoes were untied, and what he was wearing looked like a young person growing into being a man.” This was very much who the early Reeves was, and River’s Edge might be his darkest film. His vacancy here is not Zen cool … it’s just vacant, intellectually, ethically, morally, emotionally. Only in that void could Reeves be this terrifying. This is definitely a performance, but it never feels like acting. His magnetism was almost mystical.
3. John Wick (2014), John Wick: Chapter Two (2017), and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019)
If they hadn’t killed his dog, none of this would have happened. Firmly part of the “middle-aged movie stars playing mournful badasses” subgenre that’s sprung up since Taken, the John Wick saga provides Reeves with an opportunity to be stripped-down but not serene. He’s a lethal assassin who swore to his dead wife that he’d put down his arms — but, lucky for us, he reneges on that promise after he’s pushed too far. Whereas in his previous hits there was something detached about Reeves, here’s he locked in in such a way that it’s both delightful and a little unnerving. The 2014 original was gleefully over-the-top already, and the sequels have only amped up the spectacle, but his genuine fury and weariness felt new, exciting, a revelation. Turns out Keanu Reeves is frighteningly convincing as a guy who can kill many, many people.
2. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
In hindsight, it seems odd that Keanu Reeves and Richard Linklater have only worked together once — their laid-back vibes would seemingly make them well suited for one another. But it makes sense that the one film they’ve made together is this Philip K. Dick adaptation, which utilizes interpolated rotoscoping to tell the story of a drug cop (Reeves) who’s hiding his own addiction while living in a nightmarish police state. That wavy, floating style of animation nicely complements A Scanner Darkly’s sense of jittery paranoia, but it also deftly mimics Reeves’s performance, which seems to be drifting along on its own wavelength. If in the Matrix films, he manages to defeat the dark forces, in this film they’re too powerful, leading to a pretty mournful finale.
1. The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
“They had written something that I had never seen, but in a way, something that I’d always hoped for — as an actor, as a fan of science fiction.” That’s how Reeves described the sensation of reading the screenplay for The Matrix, which had been dreamed up by two up-and-coming filmmakers, Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Five years after Speed, he found his next great project, which would become the defining role of his career. Neo is the missing link between Ted’s Zen-like stillness and John Wick’s lethal efficiency, giving us a hero’s journey for the 21st century that took from Luke Skywalker and anime with equal aplomb. Never before had the actor been such a formidable onscreen presence — deadly serious but still loose and limber. Even when the sequels succumbed to philosophical ramblings and overblown CGI, Reeves commanded the frame. We always knew that he seemed like a cool, left-of-center guy. The Matrix films gave him an opportunity to flex those muscles in a true blockbuster.