Keanu Reeves May Be Pure, But He's Not Oblivious

America’s most memeable actor is back in John Wick: Chapter 3, a movie that's in on the joke of our obsession with Keanu. He might be too.

For a guy without any official web presence or expressed interest in things online, Keanu Reeves goes viral a lot. He's spawned memes when he's looked sad and other memes when he's looked happy. There's a Twitter account, 198,000 followers strong, devoted to "Keanu doing things" like wearing a fedora or hanging out on set with Sandra Bullock. Creepshot footage of the actor giving up his seat on the subway or rattling around the Bakersfield airport after an emergency landing has racked up thousands of delighted views. Reeves may have risen to fame as a Gen X movie star ("the most soulful while being the most stoner-bro," as the New York Times recently put it), but it was millennials who carved out a permanent place for Keanu in the internet boyfriend hall of fame, as an embodiment of inexpressible melancholy and a figure too pure for this world.

The fact that the actual Reeves — like any living, breathing human — is likely a lot more complicated than that has never gotten in the way of how he's been enshrined in the popular imagination, in part because Reeves has never seen fit to fight it. Reeves works hard onscreen, while barely seeming to notice the eyes (and cellphone cameras) that remain trained on him when he's off it. Where other stars attempt to actively sculpt and control their public image, Reeves submits to the sometimes intrusive attention with bemused acceptance, aware of but apparently unbothered by the fact that there's an outsize version of himself living in people's heads. When questioned about it, he tends to be kind: "Yeah, I guess that’s like an invasion of privacy. They didn’t ask me," he told Uproxx of the bus video, the existence of which seemed to be news to him. Then he added, "They were nice people. We were in it together. We had a nice car ride."

When Reeves went viral again last week, it was for something he definitely knew was being recorded. He was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, doing promo for John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the preposterously enjoyable third film of the action franchise that's come to define this period in his career. Reeves, sporting some “I'm-between-roles” facial hair, talked up the stunts and how he was set to reprise his role as world-saving slacker Theodore "Ted" Logan in a third Bill & Ted movie, nearly three decades after the last one.

All of which led Colbert to coyly ask Reeves what he thought happened when we die — a ludicrously weighty question for the average talk-show exchange, but a perfect one for the bodhisattva of showbiz. And Reeves did not disappoint, answering simply that "I know that the ones who love us will miss us." It was both a perfectly shareable aphorism and a poignant reminder of his own experiences with losing loved ones, which are real and terrible and which were also outlined in a Facebook video that blew up to the point that the fact-checking site Snopes felt compelled to put together an entry on it, judging it to be "Mostly True."

Reeves is now 54 years old. The inhuman splendor of his youthful beauty (seriously, have you seen My Own Private Idaho lately?) has gradually softened into a more manageable gorgeousness that shows the touch of time while remaining a little unreal. The fact that Reeves isn't a kid anymore is, in fact, the whole point of the John Wick trilogy, which puts the actor in the eponymous role as a retired killer yanked back into violence after an arrogant Russian mob scion kills the puppy gifted to him by his late wife.

The John Wick franchise is the creation of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, stunt coordinators turned filmmakers whose elegant action sequences make clear how often it's really Reeves there doing the work, having a swordfight on a motorcycle or slowly sinking a blade into a struggling foe's eyeball. His physicality is front and center, and it's both impossible (John should be dead a thousand times over) and extremely human (John bleeds, staggers, reels with grief). Like Reeves himself, John is at once larger than life and extremely to scale.

Reeves is famous for action. His biggest films are the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy, those landmarks of bullet-time choreography and heady stoner philosophy for which his flat affect was perfectly suited, as well as Speed and Point Break. But he's always harbored a romantic streak too, even if it hasn't always been showcased well by leading roles (like his in 2006's The Lake House) that leave him looking lost. He's better as the losing corner of the love triangle in Nancy Meyers’ 2003 rom-com Something's Gotta Give, despite the grievous injustice of Diane Keaton throwing him over for Jack Nicholson. The John Wick films work so well not just because of their fight sequences and increasingly arcane assassin mythology, but because of the degree to which they're romance-adjacent. They're heartfelt films about grief, with John as a man lamenting the death of his love and losing pieces of the life they built together in each subsequent installment.

The further the John Wick series has gone on, the more it's curled around Reeves' own persona. The first was a comeback vehicle for Reeves that also happened to be about a hitman's comeback from normal living, and the second was a riff on contractual work obligations. By the third, John is as beset by admirers as Reeves was at that Bakersfield bus stop, only in the film they're affectionately trying to murder him. When he faces down two henchmen (played by Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian of the Raid series), they thank him for the honor of fighting him, and maintain a running commentary on his performance in Indonesian during the sequence. "He's getting slow," muses one as John peels himself off the floor, while the other points out that he is recently out of retirement.

The main antagonist in the new movie, at least physically, is a striver and self-declared fan named Zero (Mark Dacascos), who’s a devotee bumped up to the assassin big leagues. "I've been looking forward to meeting you for a long time!" he declares. "And so far you haven't disappointed!" Zero is a surprisingly funny creation who owes something to Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, in how he's introduced, and something to Anne Baxter in All About Eve, in how he's ready to destroy his idol and take his place.

But Zero and his team also feel like a meditation on modern fandom at its most intense, where people need the person they admire to live up to the image they've formed of them, with an implied threat as to what might happen if the object of their obsession doesn't manage this feat. Most of the characters in the John Wick movies are bewildered by John's efforts to get out of the game and live like a normie, but they treat him as a fellow professional. The baddies in John Wick 3, on the other hand, are fans who feel a sense of ownership over John because they've tracked his career so closely.

Reeves may have the most even-keeled relationship with celebrity of any A-lister working today, but in the beleaguered looks he shoots at his foes in this new movie, there's a hint of wry self-awareness. It doesn't feel accurate to describe Reeves as a reluctant movie star, not when he devotes so much of himself to what he does, and when he gamely participates in every aspect of the process. But in playing this reluctant killer, the actor does offer a glimpse of himself as someone who's aware that there’s a finer line between being loved by the public and being devoured by it than anyone would like to think about.

There’s a thrill watching Reeves in this role that’s related to how delightful it feels to see him turn up as what looks like himself in the trailer for Netflix's upcoming Always Be My Maybe — the rom-com loser and internet boyfriend all in one, mashing his face into Ali Wong's while muttering, "I miss your taste." We may like to treat Reeves as a kind of holy innocent, but just because he avoids artifice doesn't mean he doesn't know what's going on. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer