– By James Powers –
It’s finals week here at JPCatholic, and that means yours truly is doing a fluff piece. To start, here’s a little bit of wholesome memery to lighten up your Thursday:
I stumbled upon this the other day, and it got me thinking – what is it about Keanu Reeves that has apparently captured our hearts? Between his bank-busting performance as the titular character in John Wick 3, his upcoming voice work as Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4, and a very cranked-up cameo as himself in Netflix’s new rom-com Always Be My Maybe, Keanu has been all over the place lately. Then there’s that Squarespace Super Bowl campaign from last year; the upcoming, long-delayed Bill & Ted sequel; and, just, piles and piles of memes.
He’s always been popular, but for whatever reason his status recently has transcended mere celebrity and gone into the territory of something like…I don’t know…national treasure. He’s no longer famous – he’s beloved. But why is that?
I think, just spitballing here, that there are two big reasons for this. First, Keanu is a very mysterious man, but…mysterious in a unique way. Which of course only compounds the mystery. Although he unquestionably fits the category of smoldering action star, he carries that role very differently from, say, the Idris Elbas and Brad Pitts of the world. There’s a levity there that a lot of leading men don’t have. But he doesn’t quite combine hunkiness with snark the way Dwayne Johnson or Chris Hemsworth might.
The Keanu vibe is really hard to put your finger on, yet it’s also unmistakable. There’s something about him that occupies this magical space in between playfulness and gravitas, and we don’t quite know whether to respond with affection or awe. So we end up viewing him both ways a little bit.
This might be due, in part, to his versatility as an actor. Relatively early in his career, Keanu demonstrated an ability to pivot through many different types of roles – stoner buffoon, brooding indie lead, Shakespearean villain, uppity rookie cop. In The Matrix, he could deliver a line like “I know kung-fu” in all seriousness, yet without taking it too seriously.
Years later, as John Wick, he committed 100% to the character of a brooding ex-assassin who’s on a murderous mission to avenge…his dog. We knew it was kinda goofy, pretty sure he knew it was kinda goofy, and yet…weird, somehow it worked. Somehow, the dramatic and comedic undertones complemented rather than clashed with each other. Not that that’s too surprising in itself – lots of movies pull off these kinds of tonal subtleties. But it feels like Keanu Reeves embodies such subtleties himself.
Consider, for example, the philosophical care with which he approaches a sandwich, as chronicled by Alex Pappademas for GQ:
Keanu orders a BLT and a Coca-Cola. Fries, not salad. When it comes, the BLT, it’ll be on ciabatta bread. Keanu will find himself missing the crispness of toast. Keanu isn’t sure a BLT shouldn’t leave your soft palate ground up, a little. That a BLT shouldn’t have consequences. Soft bread is for soft-bread sandwiches. “Peanut butter and jelly,” Keanu says. Then, more dreamily, like Homer Simpson in reverie: “Peanut butter and honey.”
“Keanu isn’t sure that a BLT shouldn’t have consequences.” Gosh. On one level, that’s literally just about his taste in sandwiches. But on another, it’s seems like a statement about the fundamental and tangled relationship between pleasure and pain. If the former, that’s quirky; if the latter, that’s deep. If it’s both, just, whoa. Who knows, maybe I’m reading too much into it – I really have no idea. The only person who knows for certain whether Keanu Reeves is, in fact, just talking about a sandwich is Keanu Reeves. Come to think of it, he may not even be sure himself. And I, along with apparently the rest of everybody, find that just fascinating.
The intriguing ambiguity of his persona has sort of always been there – for me at least, ever since I first saw his performance in The Matrix, which was simultaneously poetic, exciting and kind of silly. But I think that another quality (a…Keanuality? Eh, needs work) has also emerged in the essence du Reeves, one that is very timely and, I think, very refreshing for audiences today. Basically, it’s humility. At least as far as his public persona is concerned, Keanu comes off as very unassuming, even rather clueless about his own appeal. Then there’s anecdotes like the one about him loading his fellow passengers into vans to complete a trip after their commercial flight got stranded in Bakersfield. But the real biggie lately, the one that – accidentally or otherwise – has hit audiences square in the zeitgeist, is the fact that he’s been caught multiple times being almost comically circumspect when posing for pictures with women.
No matter how tight the frame, his hands keep showing up either in his pockets or fully visible, sometimes simply floating behind the women rather touching them directly. In any case, it’s clear his hands are not wandering to places they shouldn’t.
Chances are good that, as a high-powered male celebrity, he’s just playing it safe to prevent any (*cough*) misunderstandings. But apparently, after the likes of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and Chris Rock, even the possibility of a powerful man going out of his way to respect women’s space feels to the public like balm on a sunburn. And so Keanu becomes a symbol of not only modest celebrity, but also a different kind of masculinity – an image that is, in fact, reinforced by the quirky and ambiguous aspects of his persona.
Even though he shreds through mountains of bad guys in numerous action films, and does a great deal of his own stunts, and has a thousand-yard glare as his default expression, being an emotionally aloof Humphrey Bogart type is not really his thing. Nor is being a philandering James Bond. John Wick, the action role that really put Keanu back on the map, is an almost mythically lethal fighter, but he’s driven by grief over his deceased wife and, yes, deceased dog. We the audience find that kind of amusing, but also kind of poignant (especially once we understand the connection between the wife and the dog).
And the character is surprisingly chaste to boot. Although there are a few scantily-clad women who appear throughout the franchise, there’s far fewer than you would expect in films with this many punches and car chases, and the protagonist never lays a hand on any of them. What is more, the prominent women in the films tend to actually do things rather than just sit around looking curvy.
So in both his work and his public persona, I think that Keanu’s biggest contribution, and the one that’s most resonant today, is his rewriting of what a powerful man can look like. Being sexy and masculine does not have to mean being aggressive and emotionally distant.
I mean, performing your own stunts like an absolute boss definitely helps, don’t get me wrong. But so does making a cameo in a little rom-com where you gleefully make fun of yourself, or taking the time to help out a bunch of stranded airline passengers, or going out of your way to make sure that the fangirl who asks for a selfie with you has nothing to feel afraid of.
I obviously can’t speak to Reeves’ actual character. But I can speak to the sort of man he purports to be, which is a man, I think, that we all want to see more of coming out of Hollywood. And that is why, to his own apparent surprise, Keanu Reeves has become “the Internet’s boyfriend.”
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.