Keanu Reeves: The Early Years

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Keanu Reeves: The Early YearsWhoa! Take it easy. I’m not here to grandstand about what an amazing and talented thespian Keanu Reeves is. It’s quite the opposite, actually. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be reaching very far to assume that a majority of film buffs would be in agreement with me that Reeves is one of the stiffest and most one-dimensional big-name actors working in Hollywood today… (Here it comes)… HOWEVER… I don’t know what it is about this guy, whether he just gets really lucky with some of the projects he chooses, has compromising photos of big players in the business, or maybe even sold his soul to the Devil (somewhat similar to his character in The Devil’s Advocate), but Reeves is in some good (or at least fun) movies. No, I’m not talking about his ridiculous later films such as The Replacements or The Watcher. I’m talking about his heyday of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Let’s review…

I didn’t realize it at the time, but later came to understand that the first time I ever saw Keanu Reeves was in the 1986 hockey classic, Youngblood… Yes, I’m using the word “classic” very loosely, but that’s Reeves behind the mask as the goalie, Heaver, for the fictional Hamilton Mustangs that champion Rob Lowe as Dean Youngblood. Sure, the film is formulaic and derivative, but it’s one of the only movies us “puckheads” have to cling to. Besides, hearing Reeves utter the lines, “She do it to me last year,” and “That man is @#*$ing animal!” is the stuff of ‘80s lore.

Unfortunately, two of Reeves’ most enjoyable films are currently unavailable on video, but they must be mentioned here. First, 1986 also saw Reeves star in the powerful and disturbing River’s Edge, as a lost teen who’s unsure what to do when one of his friends kills another member of their clique and then shows off the body. Long before directors tried to cash in on the disaffected youth movement and snowed critics with the new-wave crop of troubled teen films such as the overrated Kids and Elephant, River’s Edge offered an absorbing portrait of the deterioration of values in America’s young people. It’s a film no one will soon forget after viewing it, and Reeves’ performance is at least credible, with great turns from Crispin Gloverand Dennis Hopper.

Second, while the subject of teen suicide was perhaps handled with more style and wit in the dark comedy Heathers, Reeves’ film Permanent Record poignantly dealt with the issue much more sensitively a year earlier. After a bright and talented kid (Alan Boyce) with a promising future decides to end his life, his group of friends is left to deal with the traumatic aftermath, especially Boyce’s best friend Reeves, who’s forced to be the new default leader of the group, and take on Boyce’s responsibilities while confronting his own grief. It’s rare that a topic such as this is explored in a real way, and the film pulls it off admirably, with the poignant script from Jarre Fees, Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron doing most of the heavy lifting.

Next, someone allowed Reeves to be miscast in director Stephen Frears’ highly lauded Dangerous Liaisons, an adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, about apathetic and affluent manipulators who used love to destroy others, and ultimately themselves. Reeves role is merely a supporting one, and while he probably doesn’t belong in the production, the film is a fine and effective effort that only lends more credence to my theory that the guy continually and inexplicably finds decent projects.

After DL, came the grand daddy of them all… Yes, I’m talking about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and yes, I’m serious. The movie is genuinely funny, absolutely creative, and anyone who doesn’t like it isn’t allowed to be my friend. Reeves stars as Ted “Theodore” Logan, who along with inseparable pal Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) must travel through time rounding up historical figures such as Socrates and Genghis Khan for their class report so that they don’t fail World History, as it would have grave consequences on the universe! Anyway, the movie features Reeves doing what he does best, playing an air-headed space cadet. It also co-stars one my comic heroes, George Carlin, in a rare role as the boys’ mentor and guide, features an unknown favorite of mine, Diane Franklin (you know, Monique from Better Off Dead), as one of the princesses, and boasts one of the most underrated comic performances of all-time in the form of Terry Camilleri as Napoleon. (I swear, he almost steals the movie in the ice cream shop and water park). So, OK, maybe it’s a guilty pleasure from my childhood, but if this flick gets switched on while channel surfing, I defy any child of the ‘80s to turn it off.

Two more bit parts followed for Reeves where he was again effectively utilized as the unintelligent burnout. Ron Howard’s Parenthood brilliantly juggles many characters in a study of the trials and tribulations of parents and kids spanning multiple generations. Not the least of this juggling act is Reeves, whose character becomes another inconvenience for the adults to deal with, but who also manages to dispense some useful advice. Then, the underrated I Love You To Death finds Reeves cast, along with William Hurt, as a dim-witted stoner hired by Tracey Ullman to kill husband Kevin Kline after Ullman learns her spouse is cheating on her. The film is extremely unique in that it’s a comedy loosely based on a real couple and serious crime, therefore most likely making it a difficult project to produce, but director Lawrence Kasdan handles it deftly and exceptionally.

Keanu Reeves in Point BraekA string of semi-hits followed for the popular Reeves, whose career really started to take off at the time. 1991 saw the man cast as Johnny Utah in the adrenaline-pumping Point Break. Granted, hearing the cast list of Reeves, Lori Petty and Gary Busey (post motorcycle accident) could make one shake their head, and while reviews for the movie were mixed, no one can deny that its action and pacing kept it interesting. Who can argue with Reeves as an FBI agent who goes undercover to nab surfers (masquerading as ex-presidents) robbing banks? Sure, while the film laughably taught folks that Patrick Swayze (tribute)“can’t paddle to New Zealand,” it also featured future Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (article) showcasing her chops. Reeves followed that up with the much-anticipated (at least for me) Bill and Ted sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. It sadly isn’t as good as the first, but the boys playing Twister and Battleship with “Death” (William Sadler) in a battle for their souls is classic.

Next up, came Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, about two troubled young street hustlers in Reeves and River Phoenix. Even though I personally feel the production is a bit overrated, its status as a cult film is certainly well-deserved due to some powerful scenes, even though Phoenix may be a little more responsible for them. Regardless, it’s definitely a movie worth watching. Once again, opinions vary widely on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it happens to be a favorite of mine. While Reeves as Jonathan Harker in the Francis Ford Coppolaadaptation is greatly aided by lush cinematography and the performances of Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman as Dracula, the fact remains that the effort is daring, ambitious and entertaining, and Reeves is at the center of it all. Additionally, who could forget Reeves as Ortiz the Dog Boy in buddy Alex Winter’s extremely bizarre and underrated Freaked, about a sideshow owner (Randy Quaid) using toxic waste to turn a crew of misfits into mutated… well, freaks?

Well, there it is. It just goes to show that a good movie isn’t always about the actor. Reeves went on to become even more successful later in his career with films such as Speed and The Matrix trilogy, and while folks will undoubtedly debate the value of these films and the merit of Reeves’ talent for some time to come, he’ll always be Ted “Theodore” Logan to me.

  • http://www.vertex.net Brian Shoff

    Had wooden teeth…. chased Moby Dick!

  • Mark

    You left out “The Gift,” in which he gave a dynamite dramatic performance. Haven’t been so surprised by the work of a hack actor since Stallone kicked ass in “Copland.”

  • Bruce R. Weaver

    The first time I saw Mr.Reeves on screen was “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and I greatly admired his California stylized accent and vacuous character. He was very funny and contributed to the fun of the movie, as did George Carlin whos exit line: (“They DO get better.”) Had me rolling on the floor. I did have a lot of problems with the script though, and at one point in the film I shouted “The writer just flunked his history exam!” President Lincoln would’nt have said “go out and party, dude!” I remember an actor from Northwestern, who came to do a one-man show about Lincoln for the school. At the end, everybody was cheering and whistling, when the actor turned, looked at the whistler and said, “Sonny I was whistling at girls when I was your age.” This is the line Lincoln WOULD’VE said in the movie.
    Reeves fit very nicely into “Parenthood,” and his character was such a clone of the same character he had played, that I was afraid he would be type-cast. With “Speed” I was happy to see him break out of the stereotype mould, and do something different; he held his own with professionals like Dennis Hopper and gave a fantastic, riveting performance. Anyone who did Hamlet in Toronto for a summer theatre festival, has got to be good!

  • bobtheclarinet

    The Matrix. Keanu was awesome. Period.

    And The Day the Earth Stood Still. A lot of people hated the remake but Keanu’s portrayal of the new Klaatu was really good. He followed the script, anyway.

  • Tom Sanchez

    You mistakenly left out River Phoenix from the cast of “I Love You To Death”. He and Reeves made a goofy, fun team of inept hitmen in that film.

  • Anne

    Yes, he was excellent in “The Gift” as well as in that film they made from the William Gibson novel ( the name of which escapes me now.. help me out, movie fans…). I thought that his wooden acting style fit the character very well.
    “Constantine” is a guilty pleasure of mine…I watch it every time it’s on TV. And of course he is superb in the Matrix trilogy. I will watch Keanu in anything, good or bad.

  • brian sieck

    Anne,

    I believe the film you’re thinking of is “Johnny Mnemonic.”

  • Charlie Ray

    Geez, he nearly sunk Dracula. Wynonna Ryder is surprisingly weak in it, but Keanu is just awful.

    Nothing against him — he’s been in several movies that I’ve enjoyed — but to this day I’m amazed that Coppola didn’t drop him after the first day of rehearsals.

  • Watching Wolf

    A Walk In The Clouds, is my favorite Reeves movie. He returns home to San Francisco to an ambitious wife. He returns to his traveling salesman job when with travel mishaps he meet a young woman with a problem. Together they return to her family in the wine country. There love blossoms despite family traditions working the family vineyard. It is one of the best romance movies in my collection. Side note is that the movies gives one view of 1940’s Mexican family that as not often portrayed in movies of that period. It is a movie for cuddling and homemade popcorn.

  • Louis Martinez

    I enjoyed both “The Lake House” with Sandra Bullock and “Something’s Gotta Give” with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. I’m a sucker for romantic movies and I don’t care to use the term “Chick Flicks”.