The age of Keanu

Dorian S. Ham

Jan 13, 2020

Color image of a young Keanu Reeves standing outdoors in front of grass and trees during the production of Tim Hunter's 1984 film River's Edge

In an unusual coincidence, the Wex is screening two films in the next two months starring actor and pop culture phenomenon Keanu Reeves: River's Edge on Thursday, January 16, as part of the J. Hoberman-inspired series Make My Day and Speed on Friday, February 28, as part of Cinema Revival. Dorian S. Ham, a Wex staffer, writer, and multidisciplinary artist, took the opportunity to explore why Reeves remains a source of adoration and fascination 30-plus years into his career.

Unless you’ve been under a rock and/or participating in your own personal pop culture blackout, you’ve had to notice that Keanu Reeves is having a moment. There are a bunch of possibilities for why it’s happening and zeitgeist reasons for how, but there’s no denying that right now we’re living in the Age Of Keanu.

On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: He’s in one of the hottest movie franchises with the John Wick series, his role as Neo in The Matrix series is due for a return, and he's about to take another spin around time and space with the Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure sequel Bill & Ted Face The Music. On the other hand, it’s rare that with 34 years onscreen, a 55-year-old would be popping off this heavy (Liam Neeson excluded). It’s hard to think of someone in his graduating class of ’86 who still gets as much love as Keanu does today, that isn’t in a “remember when” type of scenario. People are actively excited for new Keanu material. Key & Peele, at the height of their combined popularity, named their film after him.

It’s tempting, and lord knows I’ve tried, to tie this resurgence to 2010’s “Sad Keanu." If you’ve forgotten “Sad Keanu,” because the internet moves at 200 years a minute, it was a photo of Keanu eating a sandwich on a bench in New York that was then Photoshopped into a tsunami of memes. It came at a time when the Reeves was in a back-to-back series of little-seen movies, a grim period that began with 2006's The Lake House. (Did you know that he was in a version of The Day The Earth Stood Still?) So the attention felt a little, Hey…remember…we like Keanu! 

A color image of Keanu Reeves facing the camera while in the driver's seat of a car in a scene from Jan de Bont's 1994 film Speed

But why still Keanu? He’s not an actor who elevates the films around him. And he has bunch of films that are meh.

Part of it is that the fact that his hits are big hits. Speed made $350 million worldwide. The Matrix trilogy made $1,629,382,689 worldwide. That’s with a B. The word “iconic” is thrown around like Rip Taylor’s confetti but the man has several such roles under his belt: Ted, Neo, John Wick, Johnny Utah. The type of roles that may not be worth fighting over on social media, but they're super watchable and re-watchable. There’s also a bunch of diversity, from big studio fare to indie flicks, with the occasional documentary thrown in.

Another aspect that keeps Keanu on the positive side of things is that, for being in the business as long as he has, he’s managed to keep his personal life fairly personal, really only appearing when he has to work. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and when he doesn’t have to be around, he's not. But when he is, and particularly now, he’s a delight.

For example, there was the time in March 2019 when Keanu had been flying into Los Angeles on a commercial plane, but it was forced to land in Bakersfield, CA. Rather than wait for repairs on the plane, Reeves arranged for a van to take him and the other passengers on to Los Angeles. In another instance, while filming for Bill & Ted Face the Music in July 2019, Reeves and other cast members passed a house with a banner reading, "You're Breathtaking," a meme that had come out of Reeves' appearance at the Electronic Entertainment Expo for Cyberpunk 2077. Keanu pulled the car over to sign the banner and talk and take photos with the family. It's just waves of wholesomeness with this guy. These days you can tell he’s taking a particular delight in being “Keanu.” From his cameos in movies like Always Be My Maybe and Toy Story 4, there’s a little wink.

I guess at the end it just boils down to that he’s a good dude that manages to find the right film at the right moment and we’re all the better for it. Long may he reign!


River's Edge image courtesy of Park Circus
Speed image courtesy of Walt Disney Company