REPRISING HIS ROLE AS AN UBER-ASSASSIN IN JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, THE BEIRUT-BORN 52-YEAR-OLD ADDS TO HIS RESUME AS ONE OF THE MOST BANKABLE ACTION STARS OF HIS GENERATION
BY MATT SCANLON, WITH REPORTING BY SUSAN HORNIK
For all its relentless search for immediacy, technological reinvention, and fascination with youth and sex appeal, the Hollywood of the 21st century is, in many ways, indistinguishable from its golden era of the 1930s and ’40s in its embrace of bankable names, and with an extra emphasis on endurance. Where once was Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart—whose careers spanned decades—we have today’s remarkable number of actors who emerged as stars in the 1970s and ’80s and are still with us, among them Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp, Eddie Murphy, Sarah Jessica Parker, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Lange, and Denzel Washington. Arguably none, however, have maintained equal measures of revenue-dependability, aversion to scandal, and evenness of temper quite like Keanu Reeves.
We find it handy around this edit office to refer to four personality types—first established by the ancient Greeks—to categorize our A-listers. They are: Sanguine (outgoing, people oriented); Melancholic (no explanation needed); Choleric (decisive, stubborn, often arrogant); and Phlegmatic. The last is noted for its laid-back, nonchalant, and reposed sensibilities, and Reeves is solidly in its circle—a type rarely seen in a profession where tantrums and feuds often amount to simply another day on the set.
Raised principally in Ontario but actually born in Beirut, Reeves, 52, is the son of Samuel Nowlin Reeves, Jr. and costume designer and performer Patricia Bond (née Taylor)—his dad’s Native Hawaiian ancestry inspiring his son’s first name, which translates to “cool breeze” in Hawaiian. His childhood was a bit of an itinerancy, as his parents divorced when he was three and he moved with his mother to Sydney, Australia briefly before transplanting to New York, then Toronto. By the end of high school, he had elected to pursue acting professionally, but dropped out before getting a diploma. He worked as a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s youth program, Going Great, and made his TV debut in an episode of the series, Hangin’ In. His first cinematic role came in the 1986 film, Youngblood, in which he played a Canadian goalie.
Not long afterwards, Reeves packed his 1969 Volvo and headed to California, where he was introduced to manager/agent Irwin Stoff. Undeterred by the overwhelming unlikelihood of such a relative unknown finding fertile ground there, success came astonishingly early, beginning in 1986 with a memorable appearance in the Tim Hunter-directed and Crispin Glover starring River’s Edge, which told the tale of a high school slacker who commits murder. A handful of roles followed over the next three years (most notably as Chevalier Danceny in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons), but then came Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989. Though the role of the sweetly uninformed Ted Logan was life-changing in every respect, it was also a bit of a saddle, in that the film and its sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), ran the risk of instituting a form of typecasting. It might well have been that risk that prompted Reeves to select the part of Scott Favor in Gus Van Sant’s quiet, melancholic My Own Private Idaho, alongside River Phoenix, who became a close friend.
Roles in the 1990s followed a similarly unpredictable path, from action-based (1991’s Point Break, and Speed three years later), to horror (1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate), to romance (A Walk in the Clouds in 1995), but the decade ended in 1999 with arguably his most important part—and certainly his most genre- and role-defining for these subsequent 16 years—that of Neo in The Matrix, followed by its two sequels. Though there have been more than 20 cinematic parts Reeves has taken since—and certainly not all of them action-adventure focused—his reputation for sporting a winning combination of smoldering reticence and righteous anger has propelled films like 47 Ronin, Street Kings, and of course, 2014’s neo-noir action thriller John Wick.
Reeves played the title character in Wick (directed by Chad Stahelski), a retired hitman who engages in a vengeance-fueled rampage after his 1969 Mustang is stolen and his puppy is killed. This pursuit leads him deep into the Russian crime syndicate, and a trail of dead bodies follows close behind.
Earning an impressive $86 million at the box office, the film also helped develop a unique genre of action that combined anime, martial arts, and a fictionalized mash-up of close-quarters fighting and gunplay that’s been given the portmanteau of gun-fu. It also managed to inspire legions of fans, and a sequel was hotly discussed for a year after the cinematic run concluded.
In February of 2015, Stahelski and David Leitch (who played an uncredited directorial role in the first Wick film) announced that a sequel was in development, and over the course of the year, further revelations revealed that actor Ian McShane was going to reprise his role as the assassin-guests-only Continental Hotel owner Winston, joining fellow returning cast members Thomas Sadoski, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, and Lance Reddick, along with new members Common, Laurence Fishburne and Ruby Rose. Principal photography began right here in New York City in October of that same year.
Scheduled for release on February 10, John Wick: Chapter 2 describes another retirement hiatus for our protagonist, as he grapples with the international assassin organization, The High Table. In the process, he has to duke it out with no less than the world’s deadliest killers.
At the most recent New York Comic Con, Reeves spoke about the film, which he described simply as “good fun.”
“You don’t know how nice it is to hear that people are excited to see me back in the role,” he offered at the trailer screening. “When we made the first film, we thought it was cool—were trying to do something new and fresh…and to be with Chad [Stahelski, the film’s director] and [to get] a chance to work with Common…I really liked putting the suit back on.”
“We tried to choreograph the action to help show that [Wick] is an unrelenting, utterly driven force of nature,” said Stahelski, who also has experience as a stuntman. “Both Keanu and Common worked together on judo, jiu-jitsu, gun-fu, and a variety of other gun work, and then of course, Mr. Reeves driving the hell out of his Mustang.”
“Never say die,” Reeves added with a smile. “I like that Wick just keeps going, and [knows what] he is fighting for. In a way he’s protecting the love that he had with his wife [Moynahan] and kinda’ fighting for his own independence.”
At that same Comic Con panel, alongside Common, McShane, Stahelski, screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and producer Basil Iwanyk, Reeves detailed a few more plot points.
“Never say die,” Reeves said with a smile. “I like that Wick just keeps going, and [knows what] he is fighting for. In a way he’s protecting the love that he had with his wife, and kinda’ fighting for his own independence.”
“We learn a little bit more about the world of the Continental; Common plays a character who is a part of that world, a fellow assassin,” he said. “And Ian’s role, Winston, gets a little more international. We go to Rome, and we’re introduced to another [plot] layer about The High Table—so yeah, we get a little more out there. You also learn a little bit more about John himself.”
When he’s not acting, Reeves is a longtime motorcycle enthusiast, and co-runs Arch Motorcycle Company with his longtime friend, Gard Hollinger, which produces $78,000 superbikes made in Hawthorne, California. “Keanu has logged tens of thousands of miles on all manner of motorcycles, all over the world,” reads his bio on the company web site.
“For me, riding is a kind of freedom,” the actor told CNBC last year. “Just the sound, the feeling of it. The connection to the road, to the environment, to the journey.”
Reeves has also developed a reputation for a unique brand of phlegmatic practicality and generosity that continues to surprise this often-cynical industry—stories abounding of gifts offered to staffers and film crew members, a notably non-confrontational on-set demeanor, and uncluttered attitudes about success. To underline the last quality, he told Hello! magazine as far back as 2003 that, “Money is the last thing I think about. I could live on what I have already made for the next few centuries.” And, though he chose not to flourish his name along with the project, he’s championed the Stand Up To Cancer non-profit (Reeve’s sister, Kim, has battled leukemia for more than a decade), and has been a longtime supporter of PETA and the SickKids Foundation, which advocates for the health and wellbeing of children.
The closest he’s ever come to controversy? That’d be when he was unsuccessfully sued by paparazzo Alison Silva for allegedly running into him with his car, and when two women stalkers broke into his Hollywood Hills home and were taken into police custody.
Fans of the actor will have another 2017 film to look forward to: Replicas, directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, in which Reeves plays a scientist who develops an obsession with bringing back family members who died in a traffic accident.