Keanu Reeves has been a star for something like 30 years now. In that time, he’s appeared in many, many movies. He’s been in action movies and comedies and dramas. He’s traveled through time and through planes of reality and through Los Angeles on a speeding bus. He’s killed Russian mobsters and infiltrated surf-based criminal organizations and battled demons from hell who are occasionally played by Al Pacino. The man has had a full career so far and, with the ascendance of the John Wick franchise, it shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
What we’ve done here is take a look back at this career of his. Three of our Keanu-loving staffers — Brian Grubb, Josh Kurp, and Kimberly Ricci — dug through his filmography to identify his 15 best films and then attempted to rank those selections. It got ugly. No one killed a dog, though. Thank God. We all know how that ends.
15. The Replacements
The Replacements is one of those movies that I never considered seeing in the theater for even one second but have now somehow seen over 10 times on cable anyway. It’s an almost perfect “Saturday afternoon on TBS movie,” which was a very important genre before Netflix existed and is still surprisingly resilient in 2019. Keanu plays Shane Falco, a former star college quarterback whose professional prospects went in the tank after a disastrous performance in a bowl game but gets a second chance when a work stoppage opens up some roster spots. For those keeping score, this is the second movie in which Keanu plays a former star college quarterback, with the other being Johnny Utah in Point Break. Both played at Ohio State. This is fascinating to me on a number of levels. It’s fun to pretend all of his characters played quarterback for Ohio State. Do it while you’re reading this list.
Anyway, The Replacements is perfectly fine and very rewatchable and you could do worse on a boring Saturday afternoon. — Brian Grubb
14. A Scanner Darkly
The inventive visuals of this film introduced the public at large to the magic of rotoscoping. Yet that arguable gimmick — er, make that Richard Linklater’s experimental ways while adapting the Philip K. Dick novel — is only part of the attraction. There’s that captivating “vague blur” at the center of this existentially obsessed story, where identities morph and take Keanu into the void. As an actor, he’s game as hell to take the dive into drug addiction and lost identity, and the surreal and paranoid vibe of this film is further fed by Keanu’s voice pulsating through painted animation that feels almost like a mask over reality. The overall effect fuels a sense of paranoia that’s bolstered by an unbeatable supporting cast (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Harrelson), all of which leads to possibly the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel in cinematic history. It’s just plain trippy, man, and this movie’s a good one to revisit if one needs to be reminded that Keanu’s not simply a dude or a big-budget action star, although he’s definitely both those things, too. — Kimberly Ricci
Parenthood is probably better known at this point for the TV series that ran on NBC for six seasons. But don’t sleep on the movie: it’s a charming ensemble comedy starring Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Tom Hulce, Dianne Wiest, Martha Plimpton, Jason Robards, a young Joaquin Phoenix… the cast is so loaded that Keanu Reeves (who was coming off Dangerous Liaisons and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is billed fifth on the poster. Fifth! He had an uphill climb to stand out in the Ron Howard-directed movie, but he succeeded by looking like every parent’s worst nightmare — I would be uneasy if my daughter or son dated someone with that haircut — while showcasing beneath-the-surface depth. As Julie’s racecar-driving husband Tod, he tells Mrs. Buchman that you can buy a license to buy a dog or catch a fish, but “they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father,” and of course there’s his advice to Garry about masturbation: “I told him that’s what little dudes do.” We should all want a Tod in the family. — Josh Kurp
12. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Let’s get real, Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic-romance won three Oscars (for costume design, makeup, and sound effects editing), and none of them were for acting. The performances in this movie were not stellar, and I’d go as far to say that Keanu was pretty awful as Dracula’s real-estate attorney, Jonathan Harker, who at one point states, “I have offended you with my ignorance, and I am sorry.” Those words are the essence of Keanu’s performance, but I choose to point the finger at Coppola’s fixation on visuals and making Gary Oldman’s blood-sucker as theatrical as possible. Still, this film is so stylish and glossy and laughably nonsensical that it works. No one’s even quite sure how Vlad The Impaler even became a vampire in this relatively unfaithful adaptation of Stoker’s work, and Keanu’s character seems as confused as everyone, so perhaps Harker was actually more clued-in than anyone realized. Yeah, that’s gotta be it — Keanu’s a genius, and he gets it, and no one gave him credit for encapsulating this beautiful mess of a movie in 1992 in a one-man subversive performance. Now you’ll never be able to convince me otherwise. – KR
11. The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Reloaded is, without a doubt, the second best Matrix movie. That’s not the insult it sounds like. The Matrix is a masterpiece, one of the best movies released in one of the finest years for filmmaking ever, while The Matrix Revolutions is convoluted nonsense; Reloaded falls closer to the quality of the former, while still showing some of the warning lights of the latter. But you can’t fault Reeves for the sequel’s messiness — he’s still a captivating presence as Neo, who shows up again later in this ranking, obviously. There’s more to say about “The One,” and I’ll get there, but for now, please enjoy the best scene in The Matrix Reloaded and one of the most impressive set pieces in Reeves’ filmography: the so-called Burly Brawl. — JK
10. The Devil’s Advocate
All pretense of logic flies out the door in this supernatural thriller that also functions as a black comedy, all while Keanu plays a lawyer who can’t lose a case. Oh, and he also happens to be the son of Satan, played by Al Pacino, whose over-the-top performance somehow manages to top many of his other showy turns. And there’s the more grounded presence of Charlize Theron, who’s sanity is slowly slipping away and who acts as an audience barometer of how quickly things careen off a cliff. Keanu, though, not only keeps up with both of his undeniably talented co-stars but transcends them while grappling within his character’s own personal morality play. He’s pretty great here while battling not only to keep his courtroom record but his own soul intact. Keanu doesn’t pretend to be an Oscar-caliber actor here, preferring to play up his own blank-slate reputation and, deceptively, he ends up carving out a fine performance with the bluntest of instruments. Overall, the movie is ridiculous and covered in sacrificial blood while Pacino’s dancing Devil fills the whole backdrop with perverse joy. It’s so much fun, I’m going to schedule a rewatch. – KR
9. John Wick: Chapter 2
John Wick 2 is probably the worst of the John Wick movies and is still better than about 80 percent of the action movies from the last decade. It’s not even bad, far from it. It just drags a little in parts — the scene with the candlelit hot tub death, for one — and doesn’t have as many memorable moments as the films that take place before and after.
And yet, again, still good and fun and a great way to spend a few hours. Watching it now, you can see it as the necessary step between the first movie and the third, both from a story perspective and a general franchise perspective. Everything was getting bigger and needed feeling out, like a little baby fawn learning to walk with its rapidly growing and awkward limbs. Except, in this analogy, the fawn kills about 50 goons in the Italian catacombs and uses a team of homeless assassins to stage his revenge. Keanu remains terrific, too. The man is north of 50 years old and still moves like a ballerina in every action scene. He is a gift. — BG
In a recent interview, Reeves confessed that he’s always wanted to play John Constantine again. “I just love that world, too, and I love that character,” he said. “I just had a blast playing a character and [playing] in that world.” Can you blame him? Based on the DC Comics series Hellblazer, Constantine has a grim premise (man with terminal lung cancer will be sent to Hell for attempting to commit suicide unless he can kill demons), but it’s a lot of silly fun to watch. This movie has EVERYTHING: Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Gabriel! Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite! Shia LaBeouf! Hell! Reeves holding a cat years before he became forever associated with dogs! Everyone in Constantine gives it their all, which makes Reeves’ quiet calm stand out. Put another way, Nic Cage was originally wanted to play Constantine, but I’m glad he didn’t get the part. That’s the greatest compliment I can pay any actor. — JK
7. My Own Private Idaho
Art-house Keanu shone darkly next to River Phoenix’s soon-to-be-extinguished star in what was perhaps the latter’s finest role and a sign of what the former would show himself capable of achieving. Their two hustler characters circled each other, literally and metaphorically, in Gus Van Sant’s interpretation of Shakespearean grandeur, which was at once beautiful and masterful while meandering here and there, never quite content in itself. The film embraced its own controversial subject matter while reveling in hallucinatory sequences and impressionism to unique effect, jumping into and out of poetic stretches of dreams and realities through experimental editing that left one breathless. Not only was the film gorgeous to behold, but the story’s main characters were at once engrossing and hard to pin down, much like the two leading men themselves. While one can revisit the story in light of River Phoenix’s tragic life and death, it’s also clear that this film was a defining one for Reeves’ career. No longer would he be confined to floppy-haired, whoa-ing roles, but he’d go on to step outside the cinematic box in numerous ways for decades to come. – KR
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
It’s truly wild to actually sit down and think about the fact that one of our greatest action stars started his career in a goofy comedy about time-traveling teenage stoners. It’s even wilder that the movie was good and has staying power. Some of it doesn’t hold up too well here in 2019, understandably (insults that scanned as playful in the 1980s now come across… less so), but the vast majority of it is still a blast. Calling Socrates “So-crates,” still funny. Losing Napoleon and looking for him at a waterpark named Waterloo, still funny. Keanu, as Ted, leaping into the body of his movie dad and his movie dad doing a shockingly spot-on impression of mid-80s Keanu, still very funny.
Also, George Carlin is in it? How wild is that, in hindsight? Keanu Reeves got his big break in a movie about two California slackers who are given a time-traveling phone booth so they can pass a high school history assignment and thus keep together the fledgling rock band that will one day save the universe with tasty guitar licks, and their cosmic tour guide for all of it is Mr. Seven Dirty Words himself, George Carlin. There’s a lot going on here for a movie a lot of people now dismiss as stoner fluff. Oh, it is stoner fluff, very much so. Don’t ever mistake that. But it’s the very best kind of stoner fluff. — BG
5. Point Break
Three notes about Point Break:
– It stars Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Gary Busey. That combination alone makes it historically relevant. Think about the range, the history, the… Busey of it all. Gary Busey played Keanu’s FBI mentor and Patrick Swayze played the surf-obsessed bank robber who almost wooed him to the dark side. Find me one uninteresting thing about any of that.
– Keanu’s character is named Johnny Utah. Johnny Utah! And he went undercover using his real name and real identity, which, again, was a former All-American Ohio State quarterback Everything about this is hilarious. It’s one of the great “but what if the internet?” plots ever. Because once everyone accepted that “Johnny Utah” was a real name and not the worst undercover identity ever, they would have googled him one time and seen “Former All-American joins FBI” and that’s the end of the movie.
– The entire plot was more or less lifted to make the first Fast & Furious movie, except with Paul Walker as Keanu and Vin Diesel as Swayze and street racing instead of surfing. In another universe, possibly a better one, there have been eight Point Break movies, including one set in Tokyo.
Point Break rules. — BG
4. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Here are a few things that happen in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (spoiler alert, I guess?): John Wick kills Boban Marjanović, a 7’3 NBA player, with a book; John Wick and his friend Sofia, played by Oscar winner Halle Berry, command two Very Good Boys to kill a lot of Very Bad Guys (or at least bite them on the penis); John Wick meets his biggest fans… who are trying to murder him; John Wick uses a horse to kick a man to death; John Wick gets into a gunfight while riding a different horse through the streets of New York; John Wick, or should I say “Jonathan,” gets shot by Ian McShane, falls off a building, survives, and gets delivered by Jason Mantzoukas to a sewer-dwelling hobo king played by Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, very good movie. — JK
3. John Wick
Personally, I dug the Chapter 3 — Parabellum slightly more than the first John Wick because oh boy, all of the excess, but there’s truly nothing like the original in this trilogy. Hell, Keanu’s action star had already been cemented by the time this movie rolled around, which is why it’s almost unbelievable that Lionsgate rolled this out as a sleeper hit. Before all of the world building of the sequel, a very simple permutation put an irresistible spin on the story of a man seeking revenge. Add dogs. That’s it, and while the franchise has unfurled into an ornate expansion of eccentric characters and motivations, nothing compares to Wick’s fury over the senseless death of his puppy, who stood as the most poignant reminder of his late wife. The nerve of those bad guys, right? They’re the worst villains ever, and Wick shows them who’s back as his former assassin mercilessly hunts down every single person who’s even the slightest bit responsible for the dog’s death. Guns, guns, and more guns. Sure, the kills in this movie weren’t nearly as inventive as those from the threequel, and the set pieces weren’t as grand as the second film, but the sheer adrenaline rush of the original reminds everyone exactly why Keanu will always be an A-list actor. – KR
2. The Matrix
When was the last time you watched The Matrix? Not had The Matrix on in the background while you’re cleaning the house, but actually WATCHED watched it. I strongly recommend doing so. It’s a fantastic, thoughtful, influential, and thrilling movie from writers and directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski with, I’d still argue, the most defining role in Reeves’ career. When The Matrix came out, I remember Reeves being the butt of countless jokes for his supposedly “stiff” delivery as Neo, but time has been kind to the demanding performance. Reeves has to go from computer nerd to “The One” in two-plus hours, and he pulls it off with aplomb. Neo combines the coolness of Ted with the ass-kicking of John Wick. It’s everything Reeves does well, in all his sunglasses-wearing, bullet-dodging, Agent Smith-fighting glory.
Speed is basically a perfect movie. It’s got good (Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock), it’s got evil (an unhinged Dennis Hopper), and it’s got a simple hook (the bus will blow up if it slows down). Everything is right there from the first minute and it’s all simple and straightforward and exciting and it stays that way up to and including the very end when Dennis Hopper gets decapitated by a low-hanging red light in a tunnel. His character’s last words are literally “I’m smarter than you… I’m smarter than you,” then thwap, his head flies off. Like I said, perfect movie.
It’s also the one that re-launched Keanu as an action star. And the one that almost derailed his career when the studio attempted to soft-blackball him for refusing to make the objectively garbage sequel. And the one that launched the career of Sandra Bullock. Speed is so good. It might be easy to forget that now if you only think of Speed as “the movie with the speeding bus,” but go watch it again. Watch it today. It’s masterfully-paced and delivers every beat a good action movie needs to deliver. And it ends with Dennis Hopper getting decapitated while fighting on the top of a subway car. Come on. That’s a good movie. — BG