With a name less like a one-two punch and more like a little poem of introduction, Keanu Reeves has always been distinctive. The true test of a Movie Star is the ability to be known by only one name—Bruce, George, Leo, Johnny—and there is no name more evocative than “Keanu”. Like it’s wearer it is at once cool and mysterious, singular and offbeat. Keanu—the name and Movie Star—has such presence in pop culture that he can carry an entire movie as a concept. Keanu Reeves is one of the most enduring actors of the contemporary era, and a celebrity who has reached near-mythic proportions, universally beloved and more admired than ever, thanks to some post-John Wick revisionism. And where so many of his fellow Movie Stars have stumbled and lost stature, Reeves remains, the coolest, most unknowable, most untouchable—the last great Movie Star.
I. The Movie Star Who Wasn’t
Keanu Reeves has done something almost unheard of these days—off nothing more than the promise of “Keanu Reeves kills everyone”—and that’s launch an original franchise. Based on nothing and inspired by no one, John Wick is an original idea that found its audience the old-fashioned way, over time, as word of mouth spread its reputation far and wide. The result? John Wick: Chapter 2 more than doubled the take of the first installment. Taken turned out to be a case of diminishing returns, and besides, it launched in 2009, when we thought we still had capital-letter Movie Stars. (We were so innocent in 2009, we didn’t yet know that Johnny Depp had been sucked into the scarf dimension.) But in 2014, when we were hard and jaded, Keanu Reeves brought us John Wick, and reminded us what an enduring Movie Star can do.
But somehow in the capital-letter star conversation Reeves’ name never comes up. We talk about Ben and Matt and George, about Johnny and Brad and whether or not Chris Pratt will ever, but we NEVER talk about Keanu. Despite inspiring one of the most pervasive memes, and maintaining a bullet-proof popularity that has weathered several cycles through the Hollywood grinder, Reeves has avoided the social media spill and 24-hour news cycle that has destroyed the celebrity personas of his peers.
And that allows him to do something none of his peers have: Maintain his mystique. Reeves has always been noted for his air of mystery—the unknowable other, the quiet counterpart who ceded attention and headlines to the likes of Johnny and Leo. And now, when they can’t escape their public branding, Reeves maintains his aura of silence and distance, as he has always done. He is undeniably a capital-letter star, but compared to the frequency with which we hear from the likes of Brad and Ben and Johnny, Keanu Reeves is a ghost.
II. A Quality of Suggestive Sadness
Watch enough of Reeves’ movies in short order and something will leap out: His characters are all sad. In a fantastic essay assessing his career as an underappreciated actor, Angelica Jade Bastién identifies loneliness as a “thematic preoccupation” of Reeves’. I add that Reeves has a knack for not only inhabiting loneliness but also playing the internalized sadness of a character. All of the traits Bastién details, from his characters’ stillness to their loneliness to their relative virility and vulnerability, have their roots in a sublimated sadness uniting his entire repertoire. Even Ted “Theodore” Logan is sad in the way of sons disappointing to and disappointed by their fathers.
This sadness isn’t limited to performance, though, it’s an integral part of Reeves’ celebrity persona. There’s “Sad Keanu”, of course, and Reeves’ own ironically mopey children’s book, Ode to Happiness, but there is also an assumption on the public’s part that Keanu Reeves IS sad. That comes from an overlap of several factors, including his pantheon of sad characters, his sort of passively sad resting face, and, of course, the scar of personal tragedy—a stillborn child, followed by the death of that child’s mother—that has largely faded from public view but lingers in the collective consciousness as a vague impression that he is sad, or was, once.
But whether he is or isn’t actually sad is beside the point. (Although he certainly does not come across that way in interviews, where his chill-dude cool evaporates quickly in exuberant outbursts that, frankly, paint Reeves as a closet dork.) What matters is that Reeves carries a kind of suggestive sadness, that his trademark Movie Star Mystique, which has endured for decades and outlived almost every other male Movie Star from his era, comes with a sort of warning label. His sadness, real or assumed, acts as a repellent. It has dug a moat around him, repelling all but the most shameless prying, inoculating him against gossip and protecting him from exposure. It has made him into the Movie Star to be protected, the one we handle most carefully.
III. The Existential Sex Symbol
Once again turning to Angelica Jade Bastién, Reeves “marries typically masculine and feminine qualities”. This is the true beginning of his mystique, where his almost indescribable beauty merges with that subliminal sadness and renders him mysterious. That’s the number one descriptor of Keanu Reeves: Mysterious. And that’s a word most often associated with cats and women—how many men do you really hear described as “mysterious” that aren’t international espionage agents? But Reeves is always and forever mysterious.
And for all that he ticks the typical hetero-normative boxes—physically imposing, dates women, rides motorcycles—Reeves’ sex appeal isn’t especially earthy. If anything he exists on Tilda Swinton’s bandwidth, that otherworldly frequency we can’t quite receive. They are beautiful creatures, and Reeves’ beauty, like Swinton’s, renders him as a kind of proto-androgyne. Which isn’t to say that Reeves’ isn’t sexy, just that his sex appeal isn’t relevant. Sex appeal is an essential part of the male Movie Star’s kit, but Reeves, who has always stood apart from that pack, doesn’t really need it to be distinctive. He’s got his mystery, after all, and that indelible impression of sadness.
Reeves’ appeal endures because it doesn’t rely on the physical but the metaphysical, a kind of existential sex appeal that transcends era and gender. His is the appeal of the locked door, the mystery we choose not to solve. He has survived where so many other Movie Stars haven’t because he has never tried to reinvent himself. He is today as he was in 1999, in 1991, in 1989. His stature in pop culture has grown over the decades, carrying him even through the fallow years of bad movies and misfires, because of that unchanging quality. Reeves is as he always was, and we have come to count on him for that.
The success of John Wick is flavored with relief, not just that “Reeves is back!” but that he remains the Movie Star we’ve always known. It’s still him, we sigh, and embrace him in his FOURTH decade of Movie Stardom. We once took the presence of Movie Stars for granted, but as exposure has diminished so many of his peers—and effectively prevented the forming of a new generation of capital-letter stars—Reeves is a constant, distant and mysterious, seemingly untouched by time and unchanged by circumstance. His Zen calm and puzzle-box personality defy conventional celebrity coding and set him apart, a singularity even within this rarified sphere. He is, simply, Keanu.