I have a confession. This post originally started with a different question: who is the greatest current action movie star? The only criteria was that they had to be American, which means Charlize Theron, Scott Adkins, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jason Statham were exempt. But that still left Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Scarlett Johansson, Dave Bautista, Will Smith, and Bruce Willis, among others. Those are some A-list actors, but also an uninspiring group of action movie stars, whether because they’re past their prime (Willis, Schwarzenegger) or too dependent on one franchise (Johnson), or thought of as superheroes rather action stars (Johansson). And I wasn’t ready to give it to Jurassic World‘s Chris Pratt, either. No offense, Andy Dwyer.
Besides, I eventually realized this is a two-person contest: Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise. They both [extremely “went to film school” voice] kick ass and have been doing so for decades. In fact, before we begin, let’s go through every movie in both actor’s filmographies that can be considered in the “action” genre.
Reeves: Point Break, Speed, Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Constantine, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, John Wick, Keanu (kind of!), John Wick: Chapter 2, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Cruise: Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible 2, Minority Report, The Last Samurai, Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, Tropic Thunder (this is Cruise’s Keanu), Knight and Day, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Mummy, American Made, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout
These are the only movies I’m considering. No Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for Reeves, no Jerry Maguire for Cruise (Keanu would obviously win). I’m also not taking into account the personal lives for both men (again, it would be Keanu in a landslide). This is just about Tom Cruise: Action Movie Star vs. Keanu Reeves: Action Movie Star as determined through six separate categories, and now I’m suddenly upset that they’ve never appeared in the same film. Reeves in Mission: Impossible 6 makes more sense than Cruise in John Wick 4, but… I’m stalling because I don’t want to choose; they’re both awesome. But to quote another famous action movie, there can only be one.
Looking at the list above, Cruise has only turned two films into franchises: Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher (that list is about to grow with Top Gun: Maverick and Edge of 2morrow, assuming it actually gets made). The latter is way more fun than its given credit for, but Cruise’s signature franchise is obviously Mission: Impossible. Reeves also has two series under consideration: The Matrix and John Wick. I’m tempted to go with John Wick, but I know that’s recency bias talking: The Matrix is one of the most influential movies of all-time. But unfortunately, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions also exist. I can give a half-hearted defense to the inspired messiness of Reloaded, which is genuinely thrilling at times, but not Revolutions. I have my limits, and my limit is this evil laugh. So, if it comes down to Mission: Impossible or The Matrix (MATRIX: IMPOSSIBLE), the winner is the Mission: Impossible movies, which continue to improve. Fallout is the sixth film in the franchise, and the best. Imagine how many cake orgasms would have been in the sixth Matrix movie.
Best non-franchise film
Here are a few things I learned while doing research for this post: Cruise’s top-grossing film (domestic) is War of the Worlds; for Reeves, it’s The Matrix movies (led by Reloaded), then Something’s Gotta Give and Speed. The highest-rated Metacritic score: Mission: Impossible – Fallout (86) and Minority Report (80) for Cruise and Parenthood (82) and Speed (78) for Reeves. And while Cruise has been nominated for three Oscars, most recently for 1999’s Magnolia, Reeves and his Speed co-star Sandra Bullock won Best On-Screen Duo at the 1995 MTV Movie Awards, beating… Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt for Interview with the Vampire. Who am I to argue with MTV? With all due respect to Minority Report, Collateral, and Edge of Tomorrow, all of which are great and in a three-way tie for second place, it’s Speed, the most perfect over-the-top 1990s action movie. And yes, technically, Speed spawned a sequel, but Reeves doesn’t appear in Speed 2: Cruise Control and, as far as I can tell, Speed 2: Cruise Control is a creation of podcasts about bad movies. It doesn’t actually exist.
Most famous quote
Every classic action movie needs an equally iconic quote. “Get off my plane.” “Yippie-ki-yay, motherf*cker.” “I’ll be back.” These are good lines because I don’t even need to say what movie they’re from; they’re that ingrained in the lexicon. In other words, it has to pass the “guy who still says ‘MY WIFE’ to his co-workers” test. Both Reeves and Cruise are the source of GIF-able quotes that Chad (I assume your co-worker’s name is Chad) might reply to emails with, led by “woah” from The Matrix for Reeves, while Cruise has “I feel the need… the need for speed” from Top Gun. Top Gun is more well known (and it’ll be in the culture again with Top Gun: Maverick coming out next year), but this category goes to Reeves for two reasons: 1) “need for speed” isn’t even Cruise’s most famous quote (“show me the money” is, but Jerry Maguire isn’t eligible), and 2) Reeves also has “yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” And that line rules.
Most famous set-piece
I could stretch this one out for a few hundred words, complimenting Reeves for boarding the bus that couldn’t slow down in Speed, or any number of fight scenes from The Matrix or its sequels, or the chase from Point Break. But c’mon, it’s gotta be Cruise, specifically Cruise in any number of Mission: Impossible movies. If it’s not the vault heist, it’s flying a helicopter, or going underwater, or scaling the freaking Burj Khalifa, or dangling from an airplane.
Cruise is an insane person. I love him.
Both Cruise and Reeves are famous for still doing their own stunts, despite the fact that they’re world-famous actors in their 50s and should probably be settling down with the Sunday newspaper and a cup of hot tea instead. “Tom always does his own stunts and never has a double,” an insider told the Wrap before Fallout came out, while Reeves recently said, “I do all of the action. I’m 90 percent of what’s happening there [in John Wick 3]. I’m maintaining the connection to the audience, and with the story.” Still, I have to give this one to Cruise. He’s done more wacky stunts by himself than Reeves, and for a longer period of time. His lack of a stunt double has become an inside joke, while Reeves’ double is now making movies himself: he’s directed all three John Wick films. But I hope they both keep shooting bad guys on horses and running so fast that their skin might fly off their skeleton until they’re 85 years old.
Who would win in an actual fight
When A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin learned that Tolkien star Lily Collins preferred Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, he responded, “Gandalf could kick Dumbledore’s ass.” He’s not wrong, although doesn’t GRRM have better things to do than solve playground arguments? Anyway, Martin’s comment inspired this final category: who would win in a fight, Cruise’s three most-lethal action movie characters or Reeves’ three most-lethal action movie characters? In the Cruise corner, we have Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible), Vincent (Collateral), and Jack Reacher (Jack Reacher; it hurts to leave off Edge of Tomorrow‘s William Cage, but it took him too long to become a force to be reckoned with), and for Reeves, Neo (The Matrix), John Wick (John Wick), and Johnny Utah (Point Break), because his name is Johnny Utah.
Let’s go through what everyone brings to the table:
Ethan Hunt: wildcard
Vincent: ruthless hitman
Jack Reacher: good in hand-to-hand combat
Neo: everyman-turned-Chosen One
John Wick: skilled with firearms
Johnny Utah: is Johnny Utah
Vincent and John Wick offset each other’s skills and Jack Reacher is a lesser Ethan Hunt, so it’s down to Ethan Hunt vs. Neo and Johnny Utah. Ethan is a superhero, but Neo is superhuman. Here’s a description of his “powers and abilities” from Wikipedia: “He can fly at amazing speeds and jump great distances… Neo possesses superhuman strength and agility, and is near-invulnerable to most attacks… His reflexes are great enough to dodge bullets.” Who needs to hold onto a plane (or skydive) when you can jump super far?
The final total
Hm. A part of me is tempted to keep it a tie (they’re both great!), but, well, how lame would it be if John Wick tied with Boban Marjanović? So, we’re doing a quick tiebreaker: who has the better GIF when you search “[actor name] badass” (the go-to word for any action movie star)? This is very scientific.
This contest is over. Keanu Reeves wins.