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Keanu Reeves is the king of stylish Zen-with-a-side-of-fury cool. And for evidence of that fact, look no further than John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the third entry in his peerless suit-and-tie action franchise, in which he mercilessly beats 7-foot-3 Philadelphia 76ers’ goliath Boban Marjanović with a library book—and, shortly thereafter, guns down adversaries while riding a horse through the rainy streets of Manhattan.
In its blistering first twenty minutes alone, the stellar Parabellum reconfirms that Reeves and director Chad Stahelski are a match made in gun-fu heaven, serving up a series of increasingly jaw-dropping set pieces that find new ways to have the headliner fell hordes of bad guys with firearms and blades while dressed for a night on the town. As the preternaturally lethal Wick, Reeves cuts a shaggy male model figure, his bristly beard and rageaholic glare conflicting, electrically, with his still-youthful good looks and dressed-for-success outfits. He’s a study in contrasts—older but not yet old; fashionable and put-together yet bruised and bloodstained; composed yet fumingly homicidal.
After three outings, Wick has earned his rightful place in the pantheon of Reeves characters, largely because his dualities speak to Reeves’ own. As a three-decades-and-counting A-lister, the 54-year-old actor has crafted one of Hollywood’s most unique careers, built upon a persona that’s at once funny and ferocious, laid-back and laser-focused. There are few stars as versatile as Reeves, who’s long been mocked for his surfer-dude attitude (insert obligatory “Whoa” here) by those who don’t recognize the canny method behind his relaxed manner. He’s a blank slate by design, the better to inhabit a wide range of roles that keep audiences, and the actor, on his toes.
Much of that negative public opinion was shaped in 1989, when—following solid and varied work in 1986’s River’s Edge and 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons—Reeves rose to stardom as one half of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s time-travelling doofus duo. With floppy bangs that he liked to head-flip out of his face and a sunny smile flashed with his eyes wide and excited, Reeves’ Ted “Theodore” Logan was a California caricature embodied with such good-natured love that he instantly became synonymous with Reeves himself. That was a testament to Reeves’ magnetism, and also to his skill. And after reprising his Ted routine (in a more earnest, down-to-earth mode) in that year’s Parenthood, he’d upend expectations with a series of films that demonstrated he was far more than just a cheery air-guitaring buffoon.
In 1991, Reeves reunited with Alex Winter to battle Death in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Yet despite returning to that profitable well, the actor would also set the stage for his future via two projects greatly removed from the one that made him a bona fide celebrity. In the first, My Own Private Idaho, Reeves is unguarded and unpredictable as Scott, a gay street hustler who, with his best friend Mike (River Phoenix), embarks on a Shakespeare-inspired odyssey from Oregon to Idaho to Italy. A rich kid determined to prove his independence through radical means, Scott is hardly what anyone expected of Reeves, and his performance is daring in its openness and disinterest in pandering to mainstream conventions.
That he delivered it shortly after wrapping Point Break is all the more remarkable, since the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. In Kathryn Bigelow’s superior action saga, Reeves plays a college QB phenom-turned-FBI rookie who’s asked to go undercover as a surfer to stop a gang of bank robbers (led by Patrick Swayze’s beautifully-mulleted guru) who wear U.S. president masks when committing their crimes. Everything one needs to know about his character can be gleaned from his name: Johnny Utah, a moniker to trump all others. Though Reeves once again leans heavily into his surfer-bro persona, he marries that goofiness to a heretofore-unseen macho toughness, as well as a dash of romantic sensitivity. Without straining too hard in either direction, he’s both an alpha and a beta male.
That dichotomy has served him superbly in the ensuing decades. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha underlined his interest in collaborating with auteurs. Speed and the Matrix trilogy forever solidified his ass-kicking credentials, albeit in different forms, with the former tapping into his gung-ho stoutness and the latter exploiting his more dancer-like physicality. The Replacements and Hardball provided sports vehicles for his every-hunk charm. He maneuvered easily into rom-com territory with Sweet November and Something’s Gotta Give. And exhibiting a dexterity that has defined his entire professional life, he maintained his standing in both the head-busting arena (Street Kings) and sci-fi genre (Constantine, A Scanner Darkly), all while tackling films as diverse as The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Thumbsucker.
It’s as the dog-avenging John Wick, however, that Reeves has once more found a part tailor-made for his particular brand of unforced yin-yang brutality. As with The Matrix series before it, the Wick franchise hinges on Reeves’ protagonist leaving his comfortable “normal life” (job, home, wife, pet) in order to enter/re-enter the “real world”—a spectacular reality lurking beneath our everyday one, where violence, malevolent forces and secret rules reign, and where he’s the baddest revolutionary badass around.
As befitting Reeves’ own age (and history), Wick, unlike Neo, makes this journey—aided by Laurence Fishburne, no less—as a grizzled vet. And in Parabellum, he shows himself to be an expert of a most deadly sort, whether engaging in a vicious knife fight, a blazing motorcycle sword clash, or a protracted showdown against two formidable assassins (one of whom is The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian). Moreover, he’s pitted against the scene-stealing Mark Dacascos and paired with Halle Berry, who’s no slouch herself when it comes to looking great while efficiently dispatching bad guys (with the aid of her own canines).
When Reeves’ Wick snarled “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back” in 2014’s original John Wick, it wasn’t just a statement of rebirth for a character dragged out of retirement to avenge his pooch’s murder—it was a declaration of resilience for the actor as well. Time after time over the course of thirty years (including, hopefully, with June’s Toy Story 4, in which he voices stuntman Duke Caboom, as well as the forthcoming threequel Bill & Ted Face the Music), Reeves has discovered novel avenues for his distinctive charisma, which exists in a realm pitched somewhere between absurdity, intensity and gravity. With Parabellum, he writes the latest chapter in a thrilling tome that, thankfully, is far from finished.