To longtime Keanu-philes, he’s always been The One.
Suddenly, though, the whole world’s gaga for Keanu Reeves. He’s having a hell of a year: “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum” arrived to rave reviews, he hilariously sent up his spacey image in Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe,” and he pops in as a Pixar daredevil in “Toy Story 4.” At 54, he’s the new face of Saint Laurent, dashing in Wick-esque dark suits. He’s now shooting a third “Bill & Ted” installment. There’s a petition to make him Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
For those of us who’ve been in his corner since the mid-’80s, the current “Keanussance” just confirms what we always believed. But Keanu’s long been reduced to a punch line about bad acting, epitomized by his “Whoa!” tagline from 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” These detractors miss the point. He may not be a chameleon, but he is addictively watchable. There is an inscrutability to his performances, a dash of otherworldliness. He’s not bad, he’s just . . . on his own wavelength.
And people are finally tuning in, en masse. Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, in Park Slope and Williamsburg, is rolling out “Keanu: The Works,” a retrospective from July 12 through early August, featuring 14 of his greatest hits. Travel back to Reeves’ first big-screen splash in 1987’s teen noir “River’s Edge.” From there it’s on to “Bill & Ted” (1 and 2) and Gus Van Sant’s gritty “My Own Private Idaho” (1991). There’s hero Keanu in 1991’s “Point Break”— the most perfect action movie ever — and 1994’s “Speed.” Revel in the Reeves spin on a British accent in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and “Dangerous Liasons” (1988), performances which earned derision at the time, but I’ll bet will play as endearing now. And there’s the granddaddy of Reeves roles, his world-savior hacker Neo in 1999’s “The Matrix.”
Meanwhile, as an antidote to skeevy #MeToo gropers, turns out Reeves has a habit of not touching women who ask him for photos. In shots that have emerged online, featuring Reeves with women ranging from fans to Dolly Parton, he floats his hand respectfully next to them instead of copping a feel.
A viral video of Reeves giving up his seat to a woman on the NYC subway has been viewed over 20 million times, while a recent anecdote chronicled him renting a van with a bunch of fellow stranded travelers in Bakersfield, Calif. It spawned an outpouring of stories about similar Keanu encounters, edging him into Bill Murray territory — the affable icon who’ll pop up in the unlikeliest of places.
But unlike Murray, Reeves radiates soulful melancholy. He’s a perma-loner. It’s what gave staying power to the “Sad Keanu” meme of the star eating a sandwich on a bench. He’s lived through tragedy: a stillborn child with his girlfriend, who died less than two years later in a car crash; a best friend, River Phoenix, dying of an overdose at 23. The Keanu of today — though seemingly ageless — is more contemplative than the puppyish actor of yore. He doesn’t go in for fanfare, quietly funding a cancer research foundation without putting his name on it. He co-founded a company, Arch Motorcycles, to indulge a hobby without being showy. He drops words of wisdom on talk shows: “I know that the ones who love us will miss us,” he told Stephen Colbert when asked what happens when we die.
And now he’s found a way to disarm the cinematic haters: martial arts. (Nobody can mock your accent when you’re wordlessly exacting revenge for villains killing your puppy.) Whether he’s on the big screen picking off baddies or slouching through life doing good deeds, Keanu is clearly the hero we need.
As John Wick put it, “I’m thinking I’m back.”