There’s an exquisite applause break in this summer’s absurdly entertaining “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” shortly after Keanu Reeves’ hunted former hitman, brawling with a band of assassins in the New York Public Library, uses a handy hardcover to snap the neck of an assailant. When I saw the movie on opening night, the crowd went wild not for the kill, but rather for how conscientious Reeves is about placing the book back on the shelf where it belongs before fleeing the scene of the crime. It’s exactly the kind of courtesy we’ve come to expect from Keanu, who in the “Wick” films has become modern movies’ most considerate mass murderer.
If you haven’t noticed, Keanu Reeves is having a cultural moment. With “Parabellum” opening to exponentially higher grosses than its predecessors, along with sly, self-parodying cameos in “Toy Story 4” and the Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe,” the oft-memed, 54-year-old superstar has belatedly become the internet’s imaginary boyfriend. After more than 30 years in Hollywood the man whose first name translates to “cool breeze over the mountains” is arguably more beloved now than he’s ever been.
Everything seems to be coming up Keanu, especially at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend, where the actor is the subject of an all-night, six-movie marathon. “Keanu-Thon” begins Saturday at midnight with Kathryn Bigelow’s hyper-adrenalized “Point Break” and blows up 12 hours later on Sunday morning with the kinetic classic “Speed.” (The four films screening in between are a secret, though I’m told all will be presented on 35mm and I’m assuming most will feature the actor offering some permutation of his trademark “Whoa.” Nobody’s as adept at expressing amazement.)
Rudely dismissed as a lousy actor for most of his first two decades in show business, the airy, ethereal Reeves hardly seemed like the ‘90s heartthrob most likely to still be topping box office charts as we head into the 2020s. I mean let’s face it, the guy’s not exactly great with dialogue and his early career was marred by wild swings at accents (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) and Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Nothing”) for which he was ill-suited. I’ve also always had a hunch that his marvelous performance as a genial dolt in the “Bill & Ted” movies was probably a bit too convincing for Reeves to be taken seriously outside of slackerdom.
But how many young actors of that era would have dared throw themselves into the homoerotic, pseudo-philosophical maelstrom of Bigelow’s “Point Break” with such reckless abandon? Though widely ridiculed at the time, Reeves and co-star Patrick Swayze’s overwrought, Zen himbo performances now look like masterfully tongue-in-cheek turns, rolling with the movie’s glorious, widescreen ridiculousness and the towering grandeur you can only get from two ludicrously beautiful men who aren’t all that good at speaking onscreen.
It sounds strange now, but back then Reeves was considered an unlikely action hero. Studio executives saw his mixed-race exoticism and androgynous appeal as anathema to the all-American, meat-and-potatoes machismo popularized by the likes of Eastwood, Willis and Stallone. The courtly Keanu didn’t bring any bluster, which I think is part of why his movies have aged so well. Reeves reportedly insisted on a top-to-bottom rewrite of the script for “Speed,” removing the cowboy cop’s flippant wisecracks to make the character more respectful and compassionate.
“Speed” is one of my mother’s favorite movies, but not because of its wickedly ingenious premise or the dynamic direction by “Die Hard” cinematographer Jan De Bont. Mom doesn’t enjoy many action movies at all, yet she watches this one every time it’s on cable (which is a lot) because of how sweet and supportive Reeves is with Sandra Bullock while she’s stuck driving the bus during the high-octane hostage crisis. He brings a tender, forthright chivalry to a genre where macho chest-pounding had always been the norm.
Critic Gene Siskel, one of the actor’s earliest and most ardent supporters, famously insisted that Reeves deserved an Oscar nomination for “Speed” to honor the physicality of his performance. Good acting isn’t always about line readings, and indeed there are few performers more fun to watch move around. His extraordinary athleticism and grace bring balletic joy to the “Matrix” and “John Wick” pictures, along with an essential affability that keeps the violence from ever feeling too heavy. (Siskel might have been getting a bit carried away, but anyone who doesn’t see how special Keanu is in “Speed” should be forced to watch Jason Patric’s fumbling attempt to replace him in “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”)
“He’s a good guy in real life and it comes through on screen,” says a colleague of mine who’s interviewed him on a few occasions, and stories of Reeves’ generosity abound all over Hollywood. (He’s so kind to crew members that some folks in the industry have taken to describing how stars treat their subordinates as “on a scale of one to Keanu,” because nobody’s nicer.) If I had to guess why he’s connecting so powerfully at this particular moment I’d say it’s because this kind of quiet, uncomplicated decency has become an endangered species in public life.
There’s nothing swaggering about Keanu Reeves. He presents a confident and inclusive form of masculinity at a time when a lot of people — especially younger folks — are longing for an alternative to the toxic, boorish braggadocio that we’re inundated with every day by insecure, overcompensating males, everywhere from the White House to sports arenas to the sewers of social media. Could it be that gentle Keanu was ahead of the curve this whole time? Whoa.
“Keanu-Thon” starts Saturday, June 29 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.