McConaughey graduated from breezy rom-coms to gritty character acting in projects like “Mud,” “Killer Joe” and “True Detective.” Cruise overcame his unflattering public persona as an ardent Scientologist to earn the reputation of the hardest-working man in Hollywood, pushing himself to the limit to be our premier action star (forgoing the tough Oscar-bait films of his youth). Downey walked the path of sobriety and kick-started the biggest film franchise in Hollywood history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all the superhero movies it entailed.
Reeves, on the other hand, just continued doing the things at which he always excelled. There was no big controversy. No tarring and feathering by an outraged Internet mob. No public descent into addiction. Just a string of forgettable movies that slowly faded his star. Until now.
The reason? John Wick. Last weekend, the 54-year-old’s latest film, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” debuted at No. 1 at the box office. The third installation in the hard-R, kung fu-inspired action series, in which he plays the titular character, began in 2014 and made the once-beloved actor relevant — and lucrative — again (“Parabellum" pulled in $57 million in its first few days).
Reeves nabbed his breakout role in 1986′s disturbing “River’s Edge,” which is about a group of teenagers dealing with the aftermath of their friend killing his girlfriend. His performance led to a series of hits, cracking open the gates of stardom. Soon, Reeves was starring in many of the most popular films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, spanning genres from comedy (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Parenthood”) to drama (“My Own Private Idaho” and “Dangerous Liaisons”) to action (“Point Break”).
By the time he became the face of “Speed” with Sandra Bullock in 1994, Reeves was a bona fide star and an unstoppable force in Hollywood. But his stardom achieved supernova in 1999 with the beginning of “The Matrix” trilogy. The idea of him ever needing a Keanussance might have seemed insane.
However, things started to slowly change.
He played in a series of forgettable indie movies (“Thumbsucker” and “Ellie Parker”), some well-received ones (“A Scanner Darkly”), some silly rom-coms (the much-maligned “The Lake House”) and a few big swings that mostly missed (“Constantine”).
Then came the Internet.
Stills of Reeves’s films — and even candid shots of him — were turned into memes. While the sudden “memefication” of everything, particularly all things Hollywood, proved to be a particular boon to some actors (they helped distill Jeff Goldblum’s quirkiness in a way that delighted fans, for example), memes about Reeves often positioned him at least partially as the butt of the joke. His facial expressions, which generally run the gamut between bewildered and stoic, were played for laughs.
There was a still of a shocked Reeves from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” that became known as Conspiracy Keanu. It was usually accompanied by text exploring fake conspiracies so ridiculous that they’re funny. One reads, “What if the CIA invented dinosaurs to discourage time travel?”
Another, called Sad Keanu, came from a paparazzi shot of a sorrowful-looking Reeves sitting on a bench, eating a sandwich. People often Photoshopped him out of the shot and into other absurd situations, such as sitting on the edge of a cliff or on the McDonald’s golden arches.
While these images proliferated, Reeves starred in another large-budget film, 2013′s “47 Ronin,” but it was a box-office bomb. Mostly, though, he focused on personal projects, such as his directorial debut, the Chinese-American martial arts film “Man of Tai Chi.” He also released the “grown-up picture book” “Ode to Happiness,” produced the documentary “Side by Side” and continued his various philanthropic efforts.
The result was that the largely out-of-sight actor was supplanted by the meme in the cultural consciousnesses.
The memes didn’t really bother Reeves personally, though they might have changed how a younger generation viewed him. As Alex Pappademas wrote in GQ last month: “He regards his own meme-ification from a disinterested distance. Actually participating further in the process is not for him, but he’s also not judging anybody who does play along. ‘People doing dances, people doing mannequin stuff or whatever—those people, they look like they’re having fun and doing some cool [stuff],’ he says politely. To actively seek further meme-ification—hey, it’s Sadder Keanu—wouldn’t feel like a creative act, he doesn’t think.”
But the John Wick series transformed him into an action star once again.
The franchise is predicated on a simple but absurd story. It follows Wick, the world’s best assassin in a universe full of them; they operate out of a global chain of hotels called “The Continental.” The first film opens with Wick in retirement, having finally gotten out to marry a woman with whom he fell in love. But now he’s a widower, and he receives one last parting gift: a puppy. Not long after receiving the furball, though, a Russian mobster kills the dog in a petty act of insolence, forcing the principled Wick out of retirement. After that — and for three movies now — he kills everyone who tries to do him in (which is a lot of people!) with anything at his disposal, from guns and swords to pencils, books and his own bare hands. The result is pure, beautiful, balletic action.
Now Reeves’s late-night press tour appearances, rather than memes of him sadly eating a sandwich, are going viral. A clip of Reeves stunning Stephen Colbert and his audience on “The Late Show” earlier this month became social media’s topic of the week.
After a generally humorous conversation about the actor’s new action thriller, Colbert asked his long-haired guest, “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The question, clearly meant to be a setup for a clever quip, saw Reeves lean back, take a deep breath and think as a somber look spread across his face.
“I know that the ones who love us will miss us,” he finally responded, silencing the host, who smiled in appreciation. Reeves’s thoughtful answer was clipped and passed around the Internet for days after as fans watched the sweet moment in preparation for his ultraviolent movie.
And if we had to bet, there are likely many more sweet moments to come, as we’re not done with that bloody world just yet. The third John Wick film sets up a clear cliffhanger that begs for a fourth, and its expanded universe will spread to television with the upcoming Starz series “The Continental.”
All of which is to say: Keanu Reeves is back, baby. But then again, he never really went anywhere.