Impressive Performances by Keanu Reeves

7 minute read

By Jack Sackman

Fans of actor Keanu Reeves are eagerly awaiting the release of John Wick: Chapter 4, which is scheduled to be released on May 21, 2021. The first John Wick movie was a surprise hit in 2014 and helped to give a boost to Reeves’ then-faltering career. Indeed, the actor who was born in Lebanon but raised in Canada has had many career highs and lows over the years – taking risks with his movie roles that have sometimes paid off (Speed, The Matrix) and other times not (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 47 Ronin). Here we dwell on the positive and take a look at Reeves’ best movies and performances, not including the aforementioned role of John Wick (which is also great).

In celebration of Keanu Reeves’ 55th birthday, join us as we countdown the actor’s 10 greatest performances.

10. River’s Edge (1986)

The 1986 movie River’s Edge is a dark movie and one of the first to showcase Keanu Reeves in a dramatic role. The movie is about a group of high school students who discover that one of their friends murdered his girlfriend, and their apathetic reaction to the crime, which is so ambiguous and strange that it’s shocking. Co-starring Crispin Glover and Ione Skye, River’s Edge caused a stir when it was released for its depiction of teenagers who have become so desensitized to violence that they are indifferent to a murder. Reeves gives a good performance as the one member of the group who seems to have a conscience and wants to go to the police. River’s Edge was also the first film in which Reeves played a Gen-X slacker, a role he would repeat in many other films in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Source: Screenshot via Island Pictures

9. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly is a good movie, mostly due to the direction and innovations of Richard Linklater. Based on the book by celebrated sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick (Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly stars Reeves as an undercover detective in a totalitarian society, who is working with a small-time group of drug users trying to reach the big distributors of a brain-damaging drug called “Substance D.” Having sampled the drug himself, Reeves’ character begins to lose his own identity and display schizophrenic behavior, leading to him being submitted for tests to check his mental well-being. Co-starring Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson, A Scanner Darkly was filmed digitally and then animated using the interpolated rotoscope technique that gives the movie a distinctive animated look. Critics praised this movie for its ingenuity and innovative approach to animation and filmmaking. Reeves also got good reviews for his performance in this twisty sci-fi head trip.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Independent Pictures

8. The Gift (2000)

The Gift is one of the few films in which Keanu Reeves plays a villain, and he is pretty convincing as the abusive husband of actress Hilary Swank in this movie, released in 2000. In the movie, Reeves is a menacing and violent local townie who turns his wrath on lead actress Cate Blanchett, who is a clairvoyant and advises Swank’s character to leave Reeves before he kills her. This movie has an all-star cast that also includes Greg Kinnear and Giovanni Ribisi. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and directed by horror master Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), The Gift is a decent supernatural thriller that is largely distinguished by seeing Reeves play against type as a bad dude for a change. Worth seeking out.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Classics

7. Henry’s Crime (2010)

A smaller independent film that is worth watching as well is the 2010 movie Henry’s Crime, about a man released from prison for a robbery he didn’t commit who decides to target the same bank he was sent away for supposedly robbing. The movie also involves some Shakespearean acting and co-stars actor James Caan and Vera Farmiga. While this movie didn’t get a lot of fanfare when it was released, it has an understated charm, original plot, and it’s interesting to see Keanu Reeves perform Shakespeare and pull it off rather convincingly. Funny in a strange kind of way, this film is one of Reeves’ better post-Matrix films and one that seems to be gaining more appreciation with time. It’s fair to say it has a minor cult following.

Source: Screenshot via Moving Pictures Film and Television

6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

The 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was Keanu Reeves breakout movie, and the film that got the actor pegged as both a slacker and numbskull. In this totally excellent film, Reeves plays dim-witted teen Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan, who, along with his friend, Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) uses a time machine to collect historical figures from the past (such as Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln) to help them pass a history report they are in danger of failing. This silly comedy film holds a special place in the hearts of people who came of age in the late 1980s – many of whom have their fingers crossed that a long-awaited third film in this series will eventually materialize. While the first sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, underwhelmed, there is no denying the charm of the original. And Reeves is utterly convincing as a dummy Ted. Whoa!

Source: Screenshot via Orion Pictures

5. Constantine (2005)

Along with John Wick, Constantine is probably the best movies Keanu Reeves has done since The Matrix trilogy. Based on a graphic novel, Constantine stars Reeves as D.C. Comics character John Constantine, a demon hunter whose sole purpose on Earth is to send demons back to the nether regions. Constantine has been to Hell in the past and is destined to return there on his death – but hopes his good deeds on Earth may find him a place in Heaven. Dark, brooding, and with some strong special effects, this 2005 movie is a good time that, again, sees Reeves playing against type as a morose demon hunter, who knows his soul is damned to hell for all eternity. In the movie, Constantine helps a detective prove that her twin sister’s death was not a suicide in hopes that the sister’s soul will not end up in Hell since suicide is a mortal sin. This is a strong supernatural thriller and one of Reeves move unconventional film roles.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

4. Speed (1994)

Speed turned Keanu Reeves into a true leading man and a big action star. It also had a big influence on action movies that followed – as it relied less on plot and character development and more on pure action. An adrenaline shot from start-to-finish, Speed is about a bus that is rigged to explode if it slows down below 50 miles per hour. It was a huge box office hit for Reeves back in the early 1990s and got Hollywood to see him as more of an action star and less as the lovable dolt from Bill & Ted. Without Speed, Reeves may have never found himself in future hits like The Matrix or John Wick.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

3. Point Break (1991)

The original Point Break, released in 1991 and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), still holds up as a superior action and heist picture. However, the less said about the recent remake of this movie, the better. In the original, Reeves plays an FBI agent who is on the trail of bank robbers who steal to finance their life of surfing and extreme sports. The late Patrick Swayze co-stars as the zen surfer leader, who also happens to be a criminal mastermind. This movie seemingly has it all – surfing, skydiving, and some excellent action sequences involving bank robberies and chases. The relationship between the characters played by Reeves and Swayze is also a little more complicated than viewers might expect at first. Today, Point Blank can be viewed as a classic action movie, and it was the first action thriller than Reeves starred in – forecasting what was to come in the future.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

2. The Matrix (1999)

What can we say about The Matrix that hasn’t already been said? The first Matrix film released in 1999 was groundbreaking with its special effects, especially the “bullet time” action sequences. It helped change filming technology going forward. The original story, about humans being used as batteries by machines while their brains were kept occupied in a simulated world, was also pretty inventive. As Mr. Anderson aka Neo aka The One, Reeves gives a great performance that treats the material seriously, while still managing to have some fun along the way. In The Matrix, Reeves can break into some super slick Kung Fu and still keep the material grounded and from becoming too silly. He also has some tender moments with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). While the two sequels do not live up to the original in any way, there is no denying the influence of the first film.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

1. My Own Private Idaho (1991)

My Own Private Idaho, directed by the acclaimed Gus Van Sant, is arguably the best movie made by either Reeves or the late, great River Phoenix. In the film, Reeves and Phoenix play two best friends living on the streets of Portland as male escorts and hustlers, who embark on a journey of self-discovery and find a deeper relationship along the way. Controversial when released because of the homosexuality in the movie, My Own Private Idaho nevertheless won critical acclaim and numerous awards when it was released. The New York Film Critics Circle named it the best movie of 1991. And, while Phoenix took home many awards for his performance, My Own Private Idaho also showed that Reeves had serious acting chops. He was taken much more seriously around Hollywood after this movie came out. The movie remains an important and influential movie, inspiring a generation of future filmmakers.

Source: Screenshot via Fine Line Features

Jack Sackman


Jack Sackman has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2013.