Of all the reboots or reimaginings or sequels that have sought to capitalize on my millennial childhood, I think I’m most excited for the return of The Matrix, a series which has only gotten to be better as I’ve rewatched and reassessed it over the years. Surely there are myriad reasons to be hopeful of a successful return: Lana Wachowski, the writer/director who helmed the original along with her sister Lilly, is responsible for movies that have never done less than swing for the fences. The trailers hint that it may in effect be about reboots, which is the kind of meta, figurative weirdness that fits into the story of the Matrix completely literally. The movie looks as if it has plenty of cool stuff to do for newcomers Jessica Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, actors who it’s always great to see. Crucially, it looks like it is treating Carrie Anne-Moss’ return as Trinity as a major asset, promising that we will see her SCREAM LOUD ENOUGH TO BLUR REALITY and BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF PEOPLE.
Then there is Keanu Reeves, an actor who has gone from being dismissed or ridiculed to a contender for most beloved of his generation, a man about whom, it seems, nobody has anything but nice things to say. Even the gleefully flip Brian Cox, in an autobiographical work, wrote of Reeves that he is “a seeker” who “has actually become rather good over the years.”
And really, he has. Even as The Matrix conquered pop culture in 1999, it seemed like most critics had little flattering to say about its lead actor. In truth, Reeves being supposedly bad at acting was once a prevalent punchline:
In two decades of tireless work, though, one thing has become clear to those who have followed his career: He’s better at everything that made him fun to watch in The Matrix. Consider that:
Keanu is better at acting
Reeves has always been polite about any digs people have made about his acting over the years, telling one interviewer during a profile that he never heard such claims from any of the many directors he’s worked with over the years. I am not one of the people in the “Keanu used to be bad” club, but I humbly offer this viewpoint: He has a wider range and a more compelling presence in movies the further you get into his career, and this was evident much earlier than people gave him credit for.
For a good look at a movie that absolutely benefits from his performance, 2005’s Constantine is a fun watch now, in which Reeves plays a dour, nihilistic, misanthropic occult detective. He bears little resemblance to the character from the comics, but fits in perfectly with the movie’s late-stage Gothic punk sensibilities. As a guy who is on the shit list of the Devil himself (still one of the best movie devils, in fact), Reeves is a chain smoking old crank who knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in and understands why it is kind of amusing that his character hates that fact.
Even in the John Wick series, movies that are upfront about how they are mostly about Reeves ripping and tearing his way through baddies, he manages to provide an emotional core that rings true. The John Wick movies know that it is ridiculous to kill the entire Russian underworld because somebody killed your dog. And yet in the one scene in which Reeves addresses that silly-on-its-face conceit, his performance completely justifies the whole bloody affair from a character and a story perspective. This is not the performance of a bad actor, guys.
Keanu is better at fighting
Of course, John Wick is also about fighting a whole lot of dudes, a skill set Reeves has dedicated much of his post-Matrix career to being better at. Reeves was already a veteran of actions flicks by the time he worked with Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping on The Matrix and its sequels, but the stuff he’s done since has been on a completely different level than everything that came before.
Besides the ultra-popular Wick series, the strongest evidence for this remains 2013’s Man of Tai Chi, Reeves’ directorial debut, in which he gleefully steps into the vicious kung fu villain role opposite a down-on-his-luck Tai Chi practitioner played by accomplished stuntman Tiger Chen. The movie ends with Chen facing down a sneering Reeves in a no-frills duel. No parts of the environment are exploding or on fire, and the only fate hanging in the balance is our main character’s. It ends in Reeves, an A-list Hollywood actor, taking a glorious L after a gorgeous fight.
Keanu is better at guns
In addition to all the kung fu fighting Neo got up to in The Matrix, he also needed lots of guns (at least in the first outing—he decided to focus entirely on leveling up in monk for the sequels, in which he never picks up a firearm again). Whether it comes into play again or not, though, Reeves the actor is clearly ready for it.
The stunt work Reeves has done since The Matrix has certainly focused a lot on his martial arts chops. The fusion of martial arts and gunplay in John Wick is exactly the kind of paradigm shift in action cinema that Reeves helped bring about in The Matrix, and one that would also make perfect sense being incorporated into that world if that’s the direction the new movie decides to take.
Keanu is better at motorcycles
“It’s my preferred mode of transportation. It’s the physical sensation of riding, the wind, the smell, the sights, the connection to the machine, the living-in-nature. It demands a kind of attention and presentness. It’s also good to go out and think a little bit, so you can get lost in the now. Or you can also kind of reflect. You’re moving on the surface of the planet.” — Reeves on being a motorcycle enthusiast, Esquire, Oct. 2, 2017
As fancifully impractical as doing battle from the back of a motorcycle actually is in real life, I am an unashamed fan of such nonsense in movies, and indeed, any story in which bikes are a metaphor for freedom or a stand-in for medieval cavalry.
Since My Own Private Idaho, Reeves, a man who professes love for bikes as varied as old-timey Nortons and modern beasts like Ducati’s line, has partnered with engineers to design his own custom line of motorcycles. The freeway chase scene in The Matrix Reloaded belonged to Trinity, of course, so it’s good to see Moss on another Ducati in behind-the-scenes photos. We can be assured Reeves, who can be seen riding on Trinity’s pillion seat, knew what he was doing during shooting.
The Matrix Resurrections
is, perhaps, the only project in which all of these various skill sets Reeves has cultivated over the past 20 years could all possibly come to bear at once.
Kenneth Lowe still knows kung fu. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.