What makes a great action hero? Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (FUBAR) relied on their strength and physicality. Jackie Chan (Rush Hour) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport) used martial arts to their advantage. Bruce Willis (Die Hard) and Kurt Russell (Escape from New York) proved that wittiness and toughness go a long way. Now, most action stars in 2023 wear costumes in superhero movies.
Then, there’s Keanu Reeves (John Wick), who might be the most unlikely action star of all time, even more than Willis. At first glance, Reeves is a nice, handsome everyman you wouldn’t expect to take down a criminal organization or save the world. His stoic, calming presence combined with his hardworking persona transforms Reeves into a believable hero. But make no mistake about it, Reeves is an action star and one of the best in Hollywood since 1990.
Ahead of John Wick: Chapter 4, these are Reeves’s best action movies ranked in descending order.
Reeves has acted in over 100 projects throughout his career, but he’s only directed one film. In 2013, Reeves stepped behind the camera for Man of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen Lin-Hu (Kung Fu Man) stars as Tiger Chen, a courier during the day and a highly-skilled tai chi champion at night. Tiger is approached by Donaka Mark (Reeves), a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, to join his underground no-holds-barred fighting league.
Though he initially turns down the monetary reward, Tiger eventually accepts the cash from winning fights to save his temple. However, a police investigation into Donaka forces Tiger to choose between money and his morals, which leads to a showdown with Donaka. Because of his experience with The Matrix films, Reeves nails the fight sequences. It’s an old-school action film that focuses on the action first and the story second. Plus, it’s the rare time when Reeves plays the villain, so it’s a refreshing change-up from his usual heroic characters.
The Matrix is one of the most influential sci-fi action films of all time. Following it up with a sequel that improved upon the original was an impossible task. The Matrix Reloaded is not better than The Matrix, but it deserves more credit than critics initially gave it in 2003.
The sequel doubles down on action sequences, which are still incredible, though some complain that Reloaded focuses too much on action instead of the philosophical themes and human elements throughout the first film. Still, the highway scene is the best chase sequence in the franchise, and the special effects remain top-notch. Reeves is even more invincible as Neo in Reloaded, as evidenced in the “burly brawl” between him and hundreds of Agent Smiths. The film has its flaws, but it’s still an entertaining sci-fi adventure.
Sequels tend to be overstuffed with bigger budgets and greater stakes, but they typically fail to capitalize on the magic of what made the previous incarnation successful. John Wick: Chapter 2 does have a larger budget, almost double that of John Wick, and increased stakes – he’s still mad about the dog, but now it’s about eliminating an international crime lord – but the sequel recaptures the magic of the first John Wick.
Chapter 2 increases the choreographed action sequences but makes them more intricate and elaborate. It expands upon the world built in the first film as Chapter 2 goes global and adds Rome into the mix. However, the secret to any John Wick movie is Reeves, whose actions speak louder than words as he kills whoever and whatever gets in his way.
Before he played football player Shane Falco in The Replacements, Reeves was Johnny Utah, the legendary Ohio State quarterback turned FBI agent in Point Break. Utah investigates a series of bank robberies that he believes occurred from members of the surf scene. Utah goes undercover as a wannabe surfer and eventually meets Bodhi (Road House‘s Patrick Swayze), the leader of a local surf community who lives by the mantra, “Go big or go home.” The more Utah spends time undercover, the more he admires Bodhi as the two alpha males form a friendship.
However, all good things must end as Utah must choose between his job or friendship when he learns about Bodhi’s secret. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Point Break is absurd and over-the-top in all the right ways. The stunt work in Point Break is excellent, from the visceral surfing and skydiving scenes to the high-energy chase sequences. Reeves and Swayze form the perfect “bromance,” as their relationship is the heartbeat of the film.
In 2014, Reeves was at an interesting moment in his career. Though his name alone could still open a movie, he did not have the box office prowess and critical acclaim he once had in the 1990s and 2000s. 2013 saw the release of 47 Ronin, a fantasy martial arts film that became one of the biggest box office bombs of the year. Reeves needed a hit to resurrect his career. Little did he know that it would revolve around an assassin fighting for the honor of his dead dog.
John Wick was exactly what Wick needed. Once again, Reeves was a believable action hero as the elite assassin with an innate drive to kill. The film was a commercial success, grossing over $86 million on a rumored budget between $20 million and $30 million. Reeves is still making John Wick films at age 58, and his star power increases after each movie. Saved might be too strong of a word, but John Wick revived Reeves’s career.
Sometimes, the best movies only need one sentence to explain their plot. In Speed, a bomb is placed on a bus, and if that bus falls below 50mph, it will explode. In simpler terms, Speed is Die Hard on a bus. That’s all you need to know going into Jan de Bont’s (Twister) 1994 action thriller. Reeves stars as Jack Traven, a fearless LAPD officer crazy enough to get on the armed bus and figure out how to defuse the bomb. Traven learns the terrorist behind the bomb is Howard Payne (Hoosiers’ Dennis Hopper), an ex-cop out for revenge after Jack hindered his plan of extorting $3 million from hostages stuck in an elevator.
Once Jack gets on that bus, the movie never takes its foot off the gas. When Jack solves one problem, another one pops up as the bomb threat remains throughout most of the film. Speed transformed Reeves into a believable action star, and the movie reignited the summer blockbuster industry. It was his brain, not his muscles, that saved the day. It also helps that Reeves had unbelievable chemistry with his co-star, future Oscar winner Sandra Bullock (The Lost City).
All of the movies on this list are good. Some are even great. But only one film on this list is truly groundbreaking. That film is The Matrix. In a dystopian future, Thomas Anderson (Reeves), better known by his hacking alias Neo, is a computer programmer who discovers the Matrix, a simulated reality run by machines where humans are trapped and used as an energy source. Neo is brought by the mysterious Trinity (Moss) to Morpheus (Fishburne), who offers Neo a chance to learn the truth of the Matrix. Neo accepts and joins the war against machines.
Directed by the Wachowskis (Speed Racer), the special effects and CGI in The Matrix were far ahead of the industry standard, introducing concepts such as bullet time to digital train code. The highly-choreographed fight sequences and use of “wire-fu” provided the new standard for what’s possible in an action movie. The Matrix is even studied in philosophy classes because of its allegories and views on religion, mythology, and gender. Twenty-four years later, The Matrix remains a masterpiece.
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