Keanu Reeves is a singular talent. Few actors have been better at playing earnest heroism than him, and he’s been doing it for decades. Need a guy named John or Jack who has to save the world? Reeves will make the role iconic while somehow maintaining an everyman appeal. It doesn’t make sense on paper, but it does when you watch him on screen, wielding a gun and saying a catchphrase.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is the latest testament to Reeves being able to achieve the impossible. Many call it the best installment in a franchise that’s nearing ten years, which is unheard of from almost every conceivable angle. That’s the power of Reeves.
Let’s use this victory lap release to celebrate the ten best performances in Reeves’ career. Because the man’s filmography is littered with sequels, we decided to keep it to original installments only (rest assured, we enjoy all of the “John Wick” sequels and some of the “Matrix” sequels).
10. “The Gift” (2000)
“The Gift” doesn’t entirely work. Sam Raimi was trying different things, sometimes successfully (“A Simple Plan”), sometimes unsuccessfully (“For the Love of the Game”), and this supernatural thriller falls somewhere in the middle. Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, Giovanni Ribisi, and Hilary Swank give the film its heft, selling what they can of a convoluted plot involving clairvoyance and a disappeared socialite.
For our specific purposes, though, “The Gift” is special because it contains one of the few villainous turns by Reeves. He plays an abusive husband, and it is absolutely chilling to watch the calm, often serene screen presence erupts into bursts of violence at the drop of a dime. It was a risky casting decision on the part of Raimi, but unlike other “against type” gambles (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” & “Little Buddha”), Reeves delivers.
9. “Permanent Record” (1988)Reeves had yet to brandish his action credentials in the 1980s, so there was no type-casting to push back against when he appeared in the drama “Permanent Record.” He plays the shy best friend of popular high schooler David (Alan Boyce) and is left to make sense of what happened when he finds that David has committed suicide.
It’s a harrowing topic, for sure, and there are dated aspects to the film that have aged considerably, but it’s a fascinating look at a movie star before they realize their full potential. Reeves occasionally tries too hard, but it all works for his character, who wants to fit in with the teens around him badly. It’s mostly forgotten about today, but it’s worth a second look.
8. “A Scanner Darkly” (2006)Reeves and Richard Linklater don’t seem like complimentary talents, yet they came together to make the engrossing “A Scanner Darkly” in 2006. The film, which is animated using a rotoscope technique, sees Reeves play an undercover agent in a dystopian world. He is not too far off in terms of the heroes he’s known for playing, but the difference here is the agent succumbs to the druggy dystopia around him and loses any clear sense of direction.
Linklater is working from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. He does an admirable job balancing Dick’s bleak commentary with his own dialogue-driven eccentricity, which isn’t an area we often see Reeves visit. It may get too esoteric towards the end, but it remains one of the most interesting for both the star and director.
7. “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1988)There was a time when Reeves was known only as “Ted” Theodore Logan. It may seem odd now, given that he has iconic characters to spare, but he’s so convincing and hilarious as one-half of this zonked-out duo that it’s a wonder he didn’t spend the next ten years cranking out comedies. He’s all gestures and wonderment, wandering through time with his buddy Bill (Alex Winter) and belatedly uniting the world with his Wyld Stallion rockdom.
It helps that “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” holds up as a film. The chemistry between the two stars sells it, and it proved so effective that it led to a rarity in the comedy world: a good sequel. Reeves had seemingly lost a step when he played Ted a third time in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (2020), but we’ll always have the original as proof of his comedic chops.
6. “River’s Edge” (1986)
A chilling account of a slain teenager in a small town, “River’s Edge” (1986) was the first great film Reeves appeared in. He plays the local punk who reports the body and is placed among the prime murder suspects as a result. He’s in capital “P” punk mode here, talking back to cops and scraping with other teens, but he really gets a chance to show off his natural charisma with co-star Ione Skye.
The film, and Neal Jimenez’s script, in particular, is a dramatic masterclass. It’s one of the bleakest ever depictions of teenage angst, so the fact that it was released the same year as “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” makes it even more impressive.
5. “Point Break” (1991)This film rules. Johnny Utah rules. So many ridiculous, quotable lines and moments are scattered throughout “Point Break” (1991) that you’re better off rewatching it than trying to recite them all from memory. Johnny Utah is the blueprint for the action hero that Reeves would go on to perfect, yet there are times when some of the spacey line delivery of “Bill and Ted” bleeds through and results in unintentional comedy. “I. Am an FBI. Agent!” is a prime example, and then there is the majestically silly “Vaya con dios” during the epilogue.
These elements may not make for the best performance, but director Kathryn Bigelow uses all these little eccentricities to her advantage, and the result is undeniably fun. Reeves is a star, and this was one of the 1991 releases that established him as such (more on the other one later). Patrick Swayze also brings his A-game in what amounted to the swan song of his commercial peak.
4. “John Wick” (2014)“John Wick” was the comeback role Reeves had been waiting for, and it worked so well because it honed in on the qualities that had made him a beloved figure in the internet age: the reserve, the agelessness, the ability to overcome personal tragedy, and the coolness. “John Wick” is a cool action film, and Reeves is superb as the titular hitman, brought out of retirement to avenge his slain puppy.
There’s been so much lore injected into the sequels that it’s easy to forget how simple, small-scale, and clean the original “John Wick” is. It remains one of the best films in the franchise precisely because of this. Reeves gets to show off his physical prowess, both in terms of action and body language, and the results are mesmerizing.
3. “My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
Reeves balanced out the macho spectacle of “Point Break” with the sensitivity of “My Own Private Idaho,” which makes 1991 his best all-around year as a performer. He plays second fiddle to River Phoenix in the heartbreaking drama, but he manages to go toe-to-toe with the late great in every scene, teasing out emotions in ways that seem surprising to even him.
Reeves is often tasked with playing men who have the world on their shoulders, so seeing him play someone as flawed, confused, and ultimately doomed as Scott Favor is refreshing. “My Own Private Idaho” is a fascinating peek into what Reeves’s career would’ve looked like had he pursued indie fare over action blockbusters for the rest of the decade.
2. “The Matrix” (1999)“The Matrix” is the most iconic Reeves film. He will forever go down as the guy who said “Whoa” and “I know kung-fu” and dodged the bullets. It takes a special kind of actor to deliver these lines convincingly, and if there’s one single quality that made Reeves that special actor, it was his sense of awe.
He does a superb job of being amazed by the world around him while at the same time being able to rise to the occasion and become the hero that he’s told he needs to be. Things get a little messy in the sequels (especially “The Matrix Revolutions”), but as a standalone film, and a standalone performance, it holds up incredibly well.
1. “Speed” (1994)That’s right, “Speed!!” Reeves was never more magnetic, more heroic, and more of a leading man than he was when he jumped onto an LA bus and demanded that it stay above fifty miles an hour. He has to cover so much emotional ground and deal with many high-tension (dare we say, unbelievable) situations, yet he manages to sell them all with unimpeachable gravitas.
Then there’s his chemistry with Sandra Bullock, which is so good that it’s unflattering to every leading lady he’s worked with for the next three decades. “John Wick” is the peak of Reeves the elder statesman, and “The Matrix” is the peak of Reeves as a pop culture force, but “Speed” is the total Reeves package. It takes everything he does well as a performer and puts it into a classic vehicle (pun intended). He could have retired in 1995 and still been an action icon.
What do you think of our list? What is your favorite Keanu Reeves performance? Have you seen “John Wick: Chapter 4“ yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.