It might be difficult to believe right now, but there was a point — not too long ago, in fact — when Keanu Reeves wasn’t everywhere you looked.
The recent news that Reeves would return to lead yet another installment of The Matrix franchise seemingly puts an exclamation point on the 54-year-old actor’s professional resurgence after nearly a decade out of the spotlight.
From carrying a new action franchise (and becoming one of the most sought-after cameos in the industry), to making headlines in the gaming world, to reprising one of his most iconic roles after a 15-year hiatus, Reeves’ ubiquitous presence these days is one of Hollywood’s most pleasant surprises.
It’s also a fascinating look at how one big hit — in this case, his starring role in John Wick — can shake things up and remind audiences why we liked an actor so much in the first place.
After rising to fame in the ’80s and ’90s with comedy hits like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel (as well as 1989’s Parenthood), Reeves moved into action-hero territory with ’90s classics Point Break and Speed, along with a high-profile horror role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like most prominent actors, his career during that era had its share of mild highs and lows, with his 1995 romance film A Walk in the Clouds and 1997 supernatural thriller The Devil’s Advocate both earning critical acclaim, while sci-fi adventures Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction were widely panned.
Then The Matrix came along and changed everything.
Reeves’ portrayal of a mild-mannered computer programmer who becomes the cyberpunk savior of humanity in a war against sentient machines turned him from a reliable (if not particularly exciting) male lead to the coolest action hero in Hollywood. The Wachowskis’ groundbreaking 1999 film changed the game for visual effects and cinematography with its innovative fight choreography and set pieces heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema and Japanese animation while exploring themes that are still highly relevant (and excitedly discussed) 20 years later.
The Matrix would go on to win four Academy Awards while establishing itself as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, with Reeves as the face of what would soon become a massive franchise.
Two sequels to soon followed, with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions both hitting theaters in 2003 (a unique strategy, but one that seemed like an easy win given the first film’s success). The first of those sequels went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time worldwide, a record it held until Deadpool came along 13 years later.
At that point, Reeves was the star of one of Hollywood’s biggest, most visually stunning action franchises — and then, just a few years later, he seemed to fade into the background again.
In the years that followed, Reeves starred in a genre-spanning series of films peppered with indie darlings like The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and experimental projects like Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped adaptation of A Scanner Darkly. There were a few big-budget movies like the poorly reviewed remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still that arrived in theaters and quickly disappeared, but nothing approached the level of The Matrix franchise.
During this lull, Reeves found time for music, wrote a book, made his directorial debut in the under-appreciated martial-arts film The Man of Tai-Chi, and even produced a documentary about photography.
But things changed dramatically once again in 2014 when Reeves starred in a little-known action film directed by two former stuntmen called simply John Wick.
Much like The Matrix, John Wick drew inspiration from Hong Kong cinema, anime, and classic martial-arts movies for its tale of a former assassin who comes out of retirement when criminals kill his dog during a botched robbery. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch drew from their backgrounds to craft stunning fight sequences for the film that let Reeves carry each scene with his pensive stares and affinity for kung-fu filmmaking techniques, while simultaneously keeping the themes simple (revenge) and teasing the existence of a much larger world inhabited by its colorful cast of killers.
John Wick was a surprise hit, raking in more than $88 million worldwide on a meager (by Hollywood standards) budget of $20 million. It matched that box-office success with almost universally positive reviews, with some suggesting it was one of Reeves’ best performances to date. And just like that, Reeves was an action hero again.
Two sequels followed, and unlike The Matrix trilogy, the John Wick films — 2017’s John Wick: Chapter Two and 2019’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — only got more successful with each installment. The box-office returns increased with each sequel, and reviews got progressively more positive too (no small feat, given the first film’s 87% positive reviews), solidifying Reeves’ status as one of the hottest action stars in the industry all over again.
All it took was a black suit, a dead puppy, and a whole lot of bullets.
Given all of that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Reeves is headed back to The Matrix universe (and Bill and Ted’s universe, for that matter). Between the success of the John Wick franchise to Reeves’ role in Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated video games of the upcoming year, to the calls for him to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the frequent, real-life reminders that he might be one of the nicest people in Hollywood, there’s a strong argument to be made that Reeves is entering the best stage of his career so far as he approaches age 55.
It remains to be seen whether Reeves’ return to The Matrix can find the magic that the original film channeled, but with Lana Machowski behind the camera and Reeves in front of it — along with fellow Matrix veteran Carrie-Anne Moss — there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about taking the red pill and diving back into that sci-fi saga.
Reeves has already defied conventional wisdom by becoming an action hero so late in his career, but if there’s anything his trajectory has shown us, it’s that he’s the sort of actor who can surprise us in all the best ways.
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