Keanu Reeves…what can I say that hasn’t already been said about this fan favorite actor? He’s a known philanthropist and humble human being who has been a part of several major franchises and…some he’d probably rather not talk about. But when he finds a role that fits his style he owns it every time. He’s played everything from the comedic idiot to the action hero, Jesus allegory and even teen heartthrob giving him a filmography filled with various memorable characters all brought to life through a mix of Reeves’ trademark overblown or disinterested approach to his craft and character development. Whether it’s the dry, monotone Keanu or the unhinged and intense Keanu almost everyone has a favorite performance and today I’m going to look at some of mine. This weekend Reeves will return to one of his most popular modern roles as assassin John Wick so I figured this would be the perfect time to explore the roles that he’s brought to the big screen that impressed me, and many others, the most. These are my picks for the Top 10 Keanu Reeves Performances.
For this list I looked at Reeves’ filmography of big-screen pictures and selected ten performances, whether in a single film or a larger franchise, that I felt were worth celebrating. In some cases I thought these characters worthy of this list because of their impact on pop culture and their lasting legacy while in others their inclusion was more based on the quality of Reeves’ performance and the positive impact these roles had on his career. Regardless of why, all of these performances stood out to me as the most notable roles taken on by Reeves during the last three decades and beyond.
What is your favorite Keanu Reeves performance? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “John Wick Chapter 3” this weekend.
10. Scott Favor, “My Own Private Idaho”
Based on the “Henry” works of Shakespeare, “My Own Private Idaho” sees Reeves in a secondary role beside the late River Phoenix. Reeves plays Scott Favor, the best friend of Phoenix’s Mike Waters. Both are hustlers who together embark on a journey of personal discovery. Along the way Mike unveils his feelings for Scott with the most well-known moment between the two characters being a famous campfire scene where both actors get to show the brilliance and subtlety of their respective performances. Reeves holds his own in a film that helped spark the New Queer Cinema movement in the early 1990s. I don’t remember a whole lot about the movie because it’s been so long (I viewed it in high school as a member of the Gay Straight Alliance) and while I myself am a straight man I remember respecting the believability of the campfire scene alone and how well both Reeves and Phoenix captured the essence of two men at a crossroads in their lives and in their personal relationship. Phoenix might be the real star of the show, but Reeves plays an important and impressive role in driving everything home in one of his most respectable dramatic performances of his early career.
9. Dr. William Beckham, “To the Bone”
This might be a surprising entry on this list for some and I admit I did set aside some more well known and obvious picks in favor of this one, but I couldn’t leave it out. While not Reeves’ most well-known performance, his take on Dr. William Beckham, a man who specializes in treating anorexia in the 2017 Netflix original “To the Bone”, is a highly underrated performance likely overshadowed by the film’s streaming service release and controversial subject matter. Reeves serves as a straight shooting doctor who tries to help the main character Ellen (Lily Collins) overcome her anorexia. He does this by pretty much avoiding any kind of sugarcoating. Throughout the film Reeves utilizes his deadpan delivery style to perfectly portray a doctor who has seen a lot and isn’t going to waste his time. He’s done babying patients and instead is honest with Ellen about not only the obvious nature of her self-loathing but also with the consequences she will face if she doesn’t change and yet still manages to discuss the situation with tact. While a lot of people felt “To the Bone” served more to glorify the illness than raise awareness if it, Reeves performance is one element that vehemently denies any glory in anorexia and acts as a harsh truth-teller to not only the characters, but the audience as well.
8. Bob Arctor, “A Scanner Darkley”
One of the coolest animated films of the past two decades, this underappreciated science-fiction thriller focuses on a dystopian future of modern society after the war on drugs led to an uncontrollable epidemic of drug addiction. Animated using interpolated rotoscope, the film brings real life actors into a realistically animated backdrop with Reeves serving as the main character Bob Arctor, an undercover agent trying to immerse himself within the drug underworld to disrupt supply chains. Once again, we see Keanu’s deadpan delivery although this time it plays into his character’s unraveling grip on his sanity and life as he knows it. It’s a fantastic film with Reeves serving as the heart of nearly every aspect of the story. His physical acting plays perfectly into the animation style while his vocal performance gives Arctor just enough frustrated aggression while maintaining the calm demeanor an undercover cop would be expected to embrace. Even over ten years after its release this film still holds up and Reeves is a big part of why it remains so fascinating.
7. Kevin Lomax, “The Devil’s Advocate”
This supernatural legal drama matches Keanu Reeves with possibly the biggest name he’s ever had to work off of, Al Pacino. Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, an undefeated lawyer who becomes employed by Pacino’s John Milton. Lomax becomes obsessed with his work and soon learns he is working for possibly the evillest employer in history, the Devil himself. With Pacino as the Devil, every bit of Reeves charisma and acting potential is brought forth for this 1997 flick and it pays off in droves as he keeps the film grounded even in the face of Pacino’s own amazingly over-the-top take on the master of Hell. As the film’s plot progresses into something more paranormal Reeves remains a rock keeping it all relatively under control as chaos erupts around him. While Pacino does tend to overshadow his co-star, this is a performance that proves that not only is Reeves an effective actor, but he is capable of holding his own beside some of the biggest names in Hollywood. It wouldn’t be the last time Reeves delved into the paranormal either which brings me to my next entry.
6. John Constantine, “Constantine”
Reeves reentered the world of the paranormal in 2005 playing the titular character in “Constantine”, a film based on the DC “Hellblazer” comics. A cynic with the ability and knowledge to fight against supernatural powers, John Constantine walks the Earth facing off against demons and the like with his fate already sealed that he will go to Hell when he dies after he attempted suicide. Perhaps this dark future for his soul is what inspired Keanu Reeves to go full on cynic for this role, once again using his deadpan delivery style to give us a literal “devil-may-care” anti-hero who exorcises demons back to Hell in an attempt to earn favor and a possible entrance into Heaven. The beauty of this performance is how it’s always unclear if Constantine is truly invested in what he is doing. At times he seems like he truly cares and at others he comes off as doing things because he feels he has to and nothing more. It’s a fascinating and underrated take on the DC icon that serves as the best part of a middle-of-the-road but still entertaining early 2000s comic book adaptation.
5. Johnny Utah, “Point Break”
Before 1991 Keanu Reeves had been a part of some big films and proved his merit in several different genres, but with “Point Break” he proved he could be an action star which changed his career trajectory for the future. Reeves plays Johnny Utah, an undercover FBI agent trying to learn the identities of a group of thieves known as the Dead Presidents. Utah loses himself in the experience however, bonding with members of the group including Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi. This performance proved that Reeves wasn’t just a deadpan acting pretty boy. Unlike many action stars of the time Reeves brought a level of emotional complexity to his role with Utah being forced to decide if he wants to do what’s right by his badge and job or if the carefree and action-packed life of the Dead Presidents is more his style. It’s also unique for us to see an undercover cop who becomes personally invested in the well being of his marks making Reeves’ iconic performance even more memorable. While “Point Break” did receive an ill-advised remake just a few years ago, Reeves performance is a big reason why the original will always stand the test of time.
4. Jack Traven, “Speed”
Johnny Utah proved to be only the precursor to an even more iconic and enjoyable action hero role for Reeves as he took on the part of Jack Traven in 1994’s “Speed”. Considered today to be one of the greatest action movies of all time, “Speed” follows Traven, an LAPD cop, as he tries to keep a bus from falling below 50 mph to prevent a terrorist’s bomb from exploding and killing the riders. Teamed with Sandra Bullock, who was more known for romance films and dramas at the time, Reeves and his co-star dominate every minute of screen time turning in perfect performances to fit the no-holds-barred mindless action of the movie’s premise. This is one of Reeves’ most straight forward badass roles filled with snappy one-liners and confidence that oozes off the screen even still today. What Johnny Utah helped Reeves establish for his career Jack Traven helped him perfect as Reeves shed almost every preconceived expectation of his acting limitations and showed that, when given the right material, he can make for a truly awesome and charming big screen leading man.
3. Theodore “Ted” Logan, The “Bill & Ted” Franchise
Ted Logan was the first franchise character Keanu Reeves ever brought to the big screen and for a while he was inseparable from it. Ted serves as the primary evidence of Reeves’ comedic abilities that we don’t get to see too often in his films nowadays and remains one of the actor’s most unique standout characters. The subject of two films, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”, as well as a rumored third upcoming feature Ted isn’t very bright and his ignorance and naivete serves as a catalyst for the misadventures through time that he and his best bud Bill go on to experience. He’s clueless, charming, and energetic embracing a more innocent and child-like quality from Reeves’ talent pool. At the time Ted helped introduce the world to Reeves and make him a household name if he wasn’t already, but today it serves as a hilarious contrasting performance to the actor’s often stoic, serious and badass characters that have helped establish him as the star he has become.
2. John Wick, The “John Wick” Franchise
John Wick served as a return to form of sorts for Reeves who had struggled to find roles that would stand out throughout the early 2010s. In 2014 however he brought to life his third major franchise character, John Wick. The titular retired assassin of the franchise that will soon be three chapter’s strong, Wick incorporates many elements of Reeves style from his deadpan delivery and disconnected approach to the world around him to his penchant for one-liners and his action hero badassery. This is the role that reminded us all why we love Reeves so much and feels like the culmination of years of preparation to perfectly capture a genuinely human yet still aggressively skilled sharpshooter. While we have yet to see how this assassin’s journey comes to its (assumed) conclusion, Reeves has already made John Wick one of the more layered and interesting characters in his library. Maybe not as deep or as complex as other more minor roles in his filmography, but when it comes to mainstream roles this is one of Reeves’ most beloved and developed characters and one that served as a career resurgence for him in the current decade.
1. Thomas “Neo” Anderson, The “Matrix” Franchise
I know, this isn’t the most inspired pick for the top spot at all, but, come on, this is by far Reeves’ most iconic role to date and one that has defined his career in more ways than one. Plus he’s one of the few good things about all three of the “Matrix” films rather than just the first one. Reeves plays Neo in the Wachowskis’ epic science fiction trilogy who serves as a Jesus allegory, the “One” destined to save humanity from their enslavement by the machines as a bridge between the real world and the connected virtual world of the Matrix. While, yes, Neo might not be the most exciting character Reeves has ever played, hear me out. He might be the most complex. Neo sees Reeves embrace almost every part of his acting range save for humor. He’s genuinely human in a world where machines and even his fellow humans are all too robotic. Reeves deadpan delivery suits a “chosen one” character quite well while the disconnected acting perfectly fits Neo’s still-young perspective on reality. Even Reeves’ ability to sell a fight scene or a badass line helps make Neo one of the best parts of this trilogy overall. Add to that the fact that Neo made Reeves a superstar on every level. Anyone who didn’t know him before “The Matrix” knew him after it and that has gone on to help people explore his filmography and appreciate the greatness of many of the roles on this very list. So with all that said it would be impossible for me not to put Neo at the top of the list as my pick for Reeves best and most iconic performance.