Angelica Jade Bastién makes a passionate case that Keanu Reeves’ performance as Neo in the Matrix movies forever changed both our expectations for action movie stars and how Hollywood made action movies.
Twenty years and two sequels later, it is hard to imagine anyone else but Reeves as Neo, the counterculture hacker turned savior. But before he came onboard, directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski considered several others, including Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, and Will Smith (who reportedly turned down the role so he could do the widely derided Wild Wild West, one of the greatest mistakes of his career). These actors, at least at the time, hewed closer to a more traditional form of Hollywood machismo. But The Matrix is a film that operates on multiple levels: It’s a cyberthriller of unbridled intimacy, a scalpel-sharp action flick, a curious testament to optimism, and a still-worthwhile study of technology’s all-consuming power on our lives. It needs a lead who can operate on such levels as well.
As an action star, Reeves has repeatedly shown interest not just in the limits of the body and its raw strength, but also in its grace. He isn’t like Tom Cruise, who pushes his body to ever-increasing extremes — leaping out of planes or onto the side of buildings with carefully calibrated aplomb. Nor does he possess the jokey charisma of a Will Smith. When we look at the most towering examples of Hollywood action stars — from the jaunty elegance of Errol Flynn, to the muscle-bound machismo of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all the way down the line to the less distinct, glossy statesmen of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe — Keanu Reeves remains an outlier.
The melodramatic, FX-heavy superhero origin stories that proliferated throughout the 2000s also owe a huge debt to The Matrix. The film’s entrancing FX showed Hollywood that any actor could be credible as an action star even if they had to do the impossible — flying into the starry night sky, leaping over buildings with ease, or dispatching various foes at such high speeds that their movements blurred, with nary a hair out of place. You could even do it without the months of training Reeves and his co-stars put in to make their physical performances work all the more beautifully. Even those action flicks that operate as portraits of hangdog, middle-aged men with unique sets of violent skills — think Liam Neeson’s Taken and its various imitators — are indebted to how Reeves opened new veins of emotion in the genre.
Bastién’s right: Reeves was absolutely perfect for The Matrix. Looking back, it’s almost impossible to see anyone else as Neo. (Can you even imagine Nicolas Cage as Neo?! The brain practically melts.)
Reeves has often been derided as a bad, wooden actor. I remember my friends and I mocking his performance as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (And we weren’t the only ones; Reeves as Harker is considered one of the worst movie miscastings of all time.) Even so, I really like the guy.
I like the fact that, though he’s best known for action movies (e.g., Speed, The Matrix, John Wick), he’s unafraid to try different roles (with varying degrees of success). To his credit, when you watch a Reeves performance, you know you’re getting 110% from the guy; regardless of the movie, he never seems to phone it in. Also, he just seems like a really decent dude.
Note: Bastién’s article is part of “We Are Living In The Matrix,” a weeklong series of articles “about how a 1999 movie predicted kind-of-everything about life 20 years later.”
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.