Re: John Wick: Chapter 3 (May 17th, 2019) Sharpen your pencils!!!
Keanu Reeves playing John Wick has such a wonderful, almost meta commentary on Reeves's astonishing Hollywood career. He sort of quietly languishes playing surfer dudes and jocks and pops as "Ted" in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He puts in some solid work for a while but briefly finds himself in danger of becoming one-note and typecast, but he blows everyone away by getting Kathryn Bigelow's endorsement to star as "Johnny Utah" in Point Break. Bigelow was so certain that Reeves was right for the role and the studio was so upset that the film was almost stillborn until cooler heads prevailed, evidently. Reeves scores hugely again with My Own Private Idaho and at that point he successfully attains Hollywood's "golden ticket," as it were, carte blanche as a new movie star.
And, frankly, for a few years, it goes miserably. He no sooner had become a mainstay in the public's consciousness than he started making one poor decision after another. Reeves has some surprising depth as an actor on stage, but the stage and screen are different animals. Moreover, the quality of the productions he plays a part in is immediately suspect. Francis Ford Coppola, legendary filmmaker though he is, has a troubled shoot with Bram Stoker's Dracula, Reeves's very next project. Setting Coppola's problems aside, Reeves gives one of the worst performances of the 1990s in that film. Everything about the part and the character and the film play against Reeves's strengths, and just about every weakness he has onscreen is exposed. It's almost calamitous for him. As though still wanting to demonstrate that he's not just"Ted" or "Johnny Utah," however, he takes a major role in Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing. The film is a moderate success but Reeves receives no credit as his performance is only barely okay.
Perhaps as a kind of charitable gesture toward Gus Van Sant who directed Reeves impeccably with My Own Private Idaho, the star takes on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It's one of the worst films of GVS's career, a complete misfire from top to bottom. Little Buddha is a barely-okay, utter mediocrity. Reeves is actually fine in it but it does nothing to help him out. He's officially spinning his wheels and going nowhere. A bunch of Hollywood execs start writing him off as a flash in the pan.
His next film is Speed by Jan de Bont. The film saves Reeves from oblivion with its kinetic action conceits that also expand Sandra Bullock's stardom while completely resuscitating Reeves's brand. Suddenly he's one of the coolest stars in movies for a whole new generation of kids who've grown a bit tired of the same old, same old from the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
I remember seeing Johnny Mnemonic theatrically. I'll still defend it as the grungy poor man's Blade Runner weirdo B-movie sci-fi crime flick it is. It fails to capitalize on Speed's enormous success, however. Next up are Feeling Minnesota (what is it about this dude and the names of states?) and The Last Time I Committed Suicide, two dismal '90s melodramas that are intermittently painful to watch. Just when things are seeming bleak again Reeves puts together the right moves to convincingly portray hotshot Southern defense lawyer Kevin Lomax in The Devil's Advocate opposite Al Pacino and Charlize Theron. The film has aged decently, and Reeves's performance is at times knowingly funny and unwittingly funny, I imagine, but it works.
On the whole, though, Reeves is largely forgotten about by the time we're approaching 1999. Speed feels like an eon ago and for all of his talents Reeves's inability to cross over and "genre hop" like a Tom Cruise (who he was most often compared to for several years) damages the perception of him, particularly around Hollywood.
So the Wachowskis offer the role of "Neo" in The Matrix to arguably the hottest movie star on the planet at the time, Will Smith, who turns it down, not truly "getting" the part or the project by his own admission later on. The filmmaking brothers turn to Reeves and the rest is history. It's the perfect alignment of star and part, to the point where it's almost impossible to imagine someone else in the role of "Neo." Smith has oodles of onscreen charisma--in a raw manner of speaking, more so than Reeves. Yet as Smith has honestly stated over the years, as good as Smith might have been, his own sense of onscreen charisma, the kind of thing that made him massive in the wake of Independence Day, or what made a paranoid thriller like Enemy of the State (maybe Smith's best film still) work and not come across as lugubrious rewarming of '70s thriller tropes, would have sabotaged The Matrix. It's been said a million times, but it's true: when Reeves says, "Whoa," we believe him; the unbelievable being processed in that film is palpable in large part because Reeves plays Neo as an exquisite cipher into which so much is poured as the film progresses.
The Matrix, and even the subsequent sequels which are received more poorly in succession to one another, provide Reeves with so much star wattage capital that a misfire like The Watcher doesn't make a dent in terms of his demand around Hollywood. About a month before The Watcher comes out, The Replacements comes out, and finally Reeves makes the "date movie" romantic comedy he had ostensibly been aiming to make for years following his early '90s success. It's not a great film by any stretch but the filmmakers know how to utilize Reeves in such a story, and Gene Hackman adding gravitas is helpful. Reeves scores again in Hardball: again, something of a rote "jerk loner improves himself and realizes he can make a positive difference sports movie" but the filmmakers and Reeves conspire to leave the film touched by Reeves's onscreen persona in all of the right ways, elevating what could have been an outright poor movie. Something's Gotta Give is yet again Reeves winningly taking on the rom-com, branching out from action, just as the Matrix sequels are released the same year.
He gets lost in a couple of ensemble indy rom-com movies while holding down the fort in Constantine, which reunites him with his nemesis from The Devil's Advocate, Lucifer. It's a dreary supernatural thriller version of a noir and it's not particularly good, but thanks to Reeves's star power the film barely finishes its worldwide theatrical run with a tiny profit, demonstrating that his brand is still going strong in the mid-2000s.
He participates in A Scanner Darkly and receives good notices for his work.
...And, just like that, in this most fleeting of industries, the tide once again turns.
The Lake House is a plodding romantic drama with lousy writing. Reuniting Reeves with his Speed costar Sandra Bullock, the film is pushed to over $50 million domestic chiefly due to Reeves and some interest in seeing the two re-paired. Next up was Street Kings, a springtime 2008 programmer about dirty L.A. cops starring Reeves and Forest Whitaker (and Common); I enjoyed it but reviews were mostly mixed-to-poor with many critics seeming to have their knives out for Reeves (I remember reading the reviews). The film, made for $20 million, makes its money back.
The major turning point was The Day the Earth Stood Still, a lousy, bloated, self-important sci-fi movie that took Reeves's best qualities and ran them all into the ground. The movie was mostly savaged by critics and, made somewhat economically for $80 million, almost makes its money back at the U.S. box office. It's a very modest overseas hit but this was the film that signposted that all of the capital from The Matrix was gone.
Rebecca Miller, a sagacious filmmaker, put Reeves's star qualities to commendable use in the 2009 romantic comedy The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Reeves is disarmingly strong here, it should be said, adding new dimensions to his own star persona while also going deeper than any performance that was attempting to shed some of those tropes. Alas, though the film is regarded as a moderate critical success, Reeves receives minimal credit, and it's an ensemble. Moreover, the film is a box office bust, never finding an audience with its meager distribution.
2010 sees Reeves again take his star persona and find new depths within it as he stars in Henry's Crime. It's a potent little crime comedy-drama, and Reeves again receives solid reviews for his performance, but the film is stillborn at the box office in its limited release.
And this is where Reeves's career seems to hit its nadir in terms of star power. Over a decade has taken place since the release of The Matrix and Reeves's time seems to be well over. Generation Um... is a woeful indy project that is difficult to watch for its tediousness. Reeves directs Tai Chi Man, as well as gives himself a large supporting part; it's not awful but it does nothing to restore him.
Then there's what is considered by most critics and industry insiders at the time as the death blow: 47 Ronin. Made for over $175 million, the film cannot reach $40 million at the U.S. box office, and ends up with about $150 million worldwide. I distinctly recall a multi-page article in Entertainment Weekly declaring, "Reeves is done." There were pieces in trade papers like Variety that analyzed the film through the lens of being Keanu Reeves's career obituary.
And then he shows up as John Wick less than a year later.
Suddenly, he found the right role for himself once again, in the right genre, at the right time, and he was once again off to the races.
Walking through a San Francisco neighborhood the night HBO premiered John Wick: Chapter 2 I overheard one family after another cheering on John Wick. At the New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco premieres of John Wick: Chapter 2, the appearance of our protagonist (wisely teased for several minutes) received applause that made one think that Harry Callahan or Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker had shown up. John Wick. Keanu Reeves. The legend continues.
Just find it remarkably admirable how Reeves has sustained more body blows throughout his career than many and just when you think he's finished he comes back seemingly stronger than ever before. Here's to John Wick: Chapter 3!
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