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It’s Keanu Reeves’ 56th birthday: whoa. In lieu of free pizza, chocolate with sprinkles and ‘guns, lots of guns’, we’re celebrating by ranking his 10 best movies.
In 1989, the Canadian actor first stole our hearts as the excellent Theodore ‘Ted’ Logan, of Bill and Ted. Decades later, he’s delivered a filmography that, when all else fails, testifies one thing: the man never stops going.
Sure, his successes haven’t always been rife. His accents have often been mayhem vocalised. However, while benefitting from playing a certain vengeful hitman in the mid-2010s, the tide has never carried Reeves away from public favour – through flops and tragedy, his pureness has prevailed. He’s our hero, both on- and off-screen.
You take the blue pill – the story ends, and you go back to an unlisted existence. You take the red pill – you stay on UNILAD, and I’ll show you how bodacious Reeves’ work truly is. Unconvinced? Come on, something’s gotta give…
10. The Devil’s Advocate
Reeves is no stranger to the immoral, whether it be his adulterous bloodbath in Knock Knock or The Neon Demon’s creepy, mountain lion-staring motel manager. However, rarely is he truly hissable.
In The Devil’s Advocate’s first 10 minutes, equipped with a reckless panhandle accent, he humiliates a sexually-abused young girl to swing a jury. Not an immediate sell, I’m sure.
Yet, Taylor Hackford’s John Grisham/horror hybrid is an intoxicating, trashy blend of borderline-comical moralism, spirituality and excess – plus, Al Pacino plays Satan himself.
9. The Matrix Reloaded
‘He’s doing his Superman thing again.’ This is the movie in which Reeves’ Neo became my ultimate action star; the slow-mo sky-soaring, the bullet-stopping, the effortless tussling to Rob Dougan’s Fallen Angels.
Reloaded – released mere months before the franchise’s former conclusion, the troubled yet awe-inspiring Revolutions – is a gift. No, it’s nowhere near as novel or brilliant as the original. But its suave, colossal world-building illustrated the Wachowskis’ love of the Matrix and all the keys it held.
Also, it has one of the most audacious set-pieces ever conceived in its Mona Lisa Overdrive freeway chase. This automatically makes it better than most other movies.
8. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
The birth of Keanu as we know him. The first in a trilogy of unparalleled, assiduous silliness, Reeves and Alex Winter forged two loveable airheads into cinematic legend; their goofy antics are great, but their friendship is the draw.
Bill and Ted have the monopoly on century-hopping wholesomeness. While time-travel movies are plentiful, name another film where Billy the Kid looks after Socrates, and Napoleon takes a tantrum at a water park. Also, Tenet’s ‘what’s happened’s happened’ mantra is more easily and amusingly showcased here than Nolan’s trickery would ever allow.
Remember: be excellent to each other, and party on dudes.
7. John Wick: Chapter 2
After the unforeseen success of the first entry, John Wick’s second mission upped the ante in almost every way: bigger stunts, more guns, globe-trotting, and he actually kills a guy with a pencil.
Unlike 2014’s rawer, leaner motives, the second chapter expands upon Derek Kolstad’s fascinating world, diving deeper into the customs of the Continental while illustrating how to have a gunfight in public with nary a splatter nor scream. Chant-worthy artistry of bullets and fists.
Also, the fact that Reeves and Laurence Fishburne exist in two franchises together is a blessing.
A gem from a different era of Reeves, back before he was the grizzled, longer-haired badass we’ve come to adore. Pre-John Wick, Pre-Matrix, Speed is a perfect example of the actor’s everyman appeal, even amid a totally ridiculous plot.
It’s really simple: he plays a cop aboard a bus that can’t slow down, or else it will blow up at the hands of Dennis Hopper’s disgruntled baddie. Somehow, he and Sandra Bullock manage to leap the vehicle across a 50ft gap without a ramp – because movies! That’s why.
Maybe the actor’s most ordinary role; not one without athleticism or machismo, but packed with classic leading man energy.
5. A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater’s mind-warping adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel presents a dystopian future through the lens of interpolated rotoscope – an animation technique that saw artists trace over original footage to uncanny, hallucinatory effect.
Reeves plays an undercover officer caught in his own drug investigation, a tragic figure lost in law’s conflict with capitalism. Robert Downey Jr. is actually the standout, with his immeasurably infectious, scene-stealing nattering exploding next to the lead’s more internal woes.
Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, under-seen piece of work; one that cripples in its wake, rather than the moment.
4. My Own Private Idaho
A gentle, staggering fable of of love, rejection, life, sexuality and the almost-comforting cruelty of both roads gone by and yet to come. Rightly considered a classic, it’s perhaps burdened by lack of accessibility for today’s film-gorging youth.
Gus Van Sant’s landmark drama, a mishmash of traditionalist Shakespeare and street-savvy taboos, puts best buds Reeves and River Phoenix on a hustlers’ road trip of fortune and hopefully some semblance of self-discovery.
Phoenix was heart-achingly talented, far beyond his years, but his repeated triumphs are enabled by a sturdy, richly-sketched pal in Reeves. Wonderfully performed, across the board.
3. Point Break
Testosterone, off the charts. There’s a reason Edgar Wright cited Point Break’s incredible ‘pointing a gun up in the air and going ahh’ – they truly don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Let’s set the scene: Reeves as an ‘F.B.I. AGENT’ who infiltrates a group of surfers who secretly rob banks while dressed as former US presidents. There’s bromance, parachuting, manly angst and killer one-liners.
Kathryn Bigelow’s blockbuster is the pièce de résistance of pulp fiction; a glorious, careless escape of ‘100% pure adrenaline’.
2. John Wick
The one that started it all… again. In 2014, the Keanussance began, roaring to life via Reeves’ vengeful hitman on the trail of goons who stupidly, brutally murdered his dog and stole his car.
John Wick was more than the Boogeyman, he was ‘the one you sent to kill the f*cking Boogeyman’. Even further, he was a symbol; for animal lovers and action-cinema enthusiasts alike, Reeves embodied an old-fashioned hero with steely magnetism and clinical physicality.
He said it best: ‘People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.’
1. The Matrix
One of the best sci-fi action movies ever made. The Wachowskis literally changed cinema forever with The Matrix, a feast of visual effects and storytelling wizardry that’s still every bit as seminal, euphoric and exhilarating more than 20 years later.
From the pasty-skinned hacker Reeves opens with, his evolution into a bullet-dodging, kung-fu extraordinaire in Neo is a classic origin story. Yet its ideal-shattering, cyberpunk vision broke the mould of something new, something original, even as far as its own philosophy. Do we live in the real world, or is it all code?
It’s the actor’s most famous role, and rightly so: an indelible blend of unwitting normality and unfathomable coolness, equipped with killer shades, all-black clothes and heroic reserve in the face of evil. An icon.
Happy birthday, Keanu.
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