Who knew that a murdered puppy would be what made Keanu Reeves into a cinematic icon. Two years removed from potential-greatest-movie-of-all-time John Wick, we’re on the improbable cusp of a sequel to the angry assassin movie that nobody asked for but everyone loves. That’s basically Reeves in a nutshell — he’s an iconic actor that hasn’t reached the heights of awards season notoriety, but also hasn’t intentionally ridden his reputation to the absurd and borderline sad depths of someone like Nicholas Cage. Reeves is somewhere comfortable in the middle. He’s an actor that far too many people joke about because its so easy, but it’s undeniable that hes an actor whose performances stay with his audience well after they’ve left the theater. With the lead-up to John Wick: Chapter 2 in early 2017, Reeves is poised claim his rightful place as a bona fide, if notoriously hilarious and cheesy movie star in modern cinematic history.
Reeves’s awkward beginnings seem to be bright spots for 1980s nostalgia. He gets hipster cred for his early appearance in the suburban punk cult classic River’s Edge, and later as one half of a pair of Pacific Northwest rent boys in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. But his rise truly began with another pair of unlikely hits that solidified his brand: the more fun half of an improbable pair of hero layabouts in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the undercover surf bum Johnny Utah in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. Reeves became known for embodying a particular kind of yeah-dude-brah personality he continued to try and shake throughout the next decade or so.
He became the leading man of a mindless 1990s action movie, Speed, which has the nascent nihilistic poise of the type of character he’d play in John Wick, and he even awkwardly dabbled in Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh’s forgettable film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. But it was 1999’s The Matrix that provided the watershed moment in Reeves’s career.
Thomas Anderson, aka “The One,” worked so well in the original movie because Reeves’s lack of charisma made him a great audience surrogate in the complex, philosophically rich world the Wachowskis set up. His reverse magnetism resulted in a sense of wonder and curiosity manifested in the character’s memorable exclamation that typifies Reeves’s own awe: “Whoa.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that this same interjection is used in Bill & Ted as well. It is as if these were meta moments where Reeves and the characters he played couldn’t believe they were there doing what they were doing. Maybe that’s why the Matrix sequels didn’t really work, and lost a little of their magic. Reeves doesn’t function correctly when his characters are fully aware.
He was a victim of his own image, so much so that he became a meme with the “Sad Keanu” craze that swept the internet in the early aughts. The photo of him sitting alone eating a sandwich on a park bench was pure Reeves: Someone completely caught up in his own unique take on the world. Can you imagine anyone else as such and ernest yet sad meme? As Johnny Utah? As Neo? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be as good. Which brings us to Wick.
John Wick is the perfect meme storm, a brilliantly stupid throwback to a simpler cinematic age where things went boom onscreen. The patently absurd premise is, most importantly, fun. This is, after all, a movie about a retired assassin — nicknamed “Baba Yaga,” translation: “The Boogeyman” — who seeks murderous vengeance on the poor bastards who murdered the puppy his dead wife gifted him before she died. This was proper schlock that earned its keep and its audiences respect by being so intent on just kicking much ass as possible, that it felt like the fifth and best installment of a franchise nobody had seen before.
Here was Reeves playing to his strengths as an aloof observer who could also somehow make firing a gun look like a martial art. Instead of Reeves coming out with a signature “Whoa,” it was the audience’s collective reaction in finally realizing that this was his cheese-tastic magnum opus. And we’re about to get more.
It just wouldn’t be right for Reeves to be fully cognizant of his place in pop culture. His sincerity and seriousness (which might be as well rehearsed as his lines) are the key to what makes him such a memorable actor. John Wick 2 provides the perfect contrast in content, playing his strengths as an actor so beautifully against a backdrop of operatic explosions, that it’s inevitable that Reeves will finally secure his Hollywood legacy as one of the greats. The John Wick: Chapter 2 press tour will be Reeves’s crowning jewel, a lynchpin securing the most memeable version of his image. He’ll have to answer follow up questions about a sidekick dog, what kind of bespoke suit is the best for icing bad dudes, and what it’s like being cussed out by Ian McShane for a second time. That alone is enough to capture a nation’s imagination in 2017. The movie is a delicious bonus.