For an actor so enigmatically blessed with sensitive leading man looks, Keanu Reeves has an uncanny dexterity within the action genre. Hampered by the effortlessness of his airhead turn as Ted in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Reeves spent years shedding his pretty boy persona in more arthouse and mainstream dramatic fare, only to find it right at home within the action genre. Regarded less as an action star than an action film curiosity, the actor opened the ‘90s with his surfer boy cum adrenaline cop turn in Point Break and closed it with the advent of the superhero on film in The Matrix. In between was Speed, which distilled the facets of the action hero down to a gleam of his eye and a grimace of his teeth.
In the opening shots of Point Break, Reeves emerges from an FBI shooting range soaking wet from an afternoon downpour, a slab of sun-dipped All-American male: sculpted with a perfect quaff of hair and accented by a bodacious lilt in his voice. In this pretty boy was the future of action films, a staunch indictment of the roid bound behemoths of the ‘80s blockbusters. Johnny Utah, despite his GQ good looks, was defined by his sensuality. Rugged yet tender, brash yet romantic, Utah fights as well as he loves. And he loves in multitudes, shacking up with Lori Petty’s breezy tough chick Tyler, and all but declaring his devotion to Patrick Swayze’s zen daredevil, Bodie. This is not an unstoppable hero. Utah barely wins one fight throughout the entire picture, needing rescue on at least two occasions. But like Bruce Willis’ John McClane, he has guts–guts that include skydiving after a man sans a parachute. Reeves’ fluidity within the film–to be the observer and the doer–created a new phenomenon in the genre: the open action hero. His malleability would give way to more empathetic heroes, some that worked like gangbusters (Tom Cruise at his boyish best in Mission: Impossible) and some not so successful (Geena Davis’ mugging in Cutthroat Island comes to mind). But the pronouncement was loud and clear: ‘80s mavens like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were soon to be relics.
If Point Break was Reeves’ action arrival, then Speed was the film that turned him into a star. In his mix of masculinity and vulnerability, Reeves crafted both a red blooded character and the ’90s action archetype. A boy scout with biceps, his cocky SWAT ace Jack Traven is chivalrous and far from emotionally removed from his predicament. Director Jan de Bont and screenwriter Graham Yost wisely keep the hero on an emotional razor’s edge for the film’s brisk two hours, allowing his frustration and exhilaration to match the audience’s.
Always one to deflect ethnic pigeonholing by sheer force of his good looks, Reeves’ racial ambiguity (or rainbow face, depending on how one looks at it) made him a transcendent figure among other homogenous action heroes. In Point Break and especially in Speed, both set in California, his bronzed complexion becomes a tacit reminder of the racial ubiquity of the genre. His arrival in the 90’s coincided with other diverse and commanding star turns in action vehicles, some big names (Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington), some that would become cult figures (Brandon Lee, among others), and some that would fade into obscurity (Robin Shou, Jason Scott Lee).
Reeves seems to be removed from ethnicity as well as age, being able to take on the physical form of any hero he is playing be it jock FBI agent, LA cop, or cyber resistance fighter. Often lazily cited as blank or dim, in Speed, his character (and the actor) is startlingly alert. Observe the opening, which has Traven and partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) coming to the rescue of passengers trapped in an LA sky rise elevator. Chewing gum with the anxiousness of a man about to get laid, Traven flippantly quips his way through the scenario until he has a light bulb moment of how to save the hostages. Once they’ve been secured, the cop’s itchy gut feeling compels him to seek out the bomber on site. The actor makes use of those “big, pretty eyes” (as The Matrix’s Joe Pantoliano swoons), and the audience can see the wheels turning in his head. This is a character that thinks before he whips out his firearm.
The pretty boy label would undersell Reeves’ charm here, though. Though he begins the film as a studly specimen, he is curiously unsexualized. Even his attire–first seen dressed to the nines in SWAT gear and then for the rest of the film in a plain white shirt…with sleeves–speaks to the nature of the ’90s action male lead. He’s a man who is dressed efficiently or comfortably in all manners of his professional and personal life, but is willing to get those articles filthy to get the job done (Reeves could have easily stood in for a Hanes T-shirt model). The shift from his own Johnny Utah of 1991 to Neo of 1999, with Traven in the middle of the decade, represents the sea change in the fetishization of hardware over bodies. It’s no accident that when he straps on the bomb vest mid picture, fusing his comfort soft tee with his gear, that the hotshot finally meets the pretty boy and Traven has his epiphany that saves the bus. His good Samaritan finally meets his professional daredevil.
Reeve’s best character and career showcase is in the prelude to Speed’s final showdown. In pursuit of bomber Dennis Hopper, he catches up to someone whom he presumes is his man. When the suspect turns around, only to be Sandra Bullock’s hapless Annie, Reeves’ bravado shrinks with one simple line: “Oh, no.” It’s the moment in the film where his hard boiled (and strategically oiled) exterior gives way to the gentleman underneath. “I don’t think you can shoot her,” Hopper’s villain taunts. Reeves’ grimace says it all; this hero, so new and pretty and young, is more the hero of old: a knight in shining armor who can’t bear to have his damsel scathed yet recognizes the lady’s feistiness and instinct for self preservation. Notice his surprise earlier in the film at Annie’s impressive driving skills. “You should have been a pilot,” he says.
There is a desire in Jack Traven not just to “get his man” but to honor his promise to the girl. It is not enough that he saved a bus load of people, he has to save the one person who he has emotionally connected to throughout the ordeal, and we can presume, the first woman he has emotionally connected to in a long time. At the film’s beginning, when asked after his medal ceremony for the elevator rescue if he had a fun night out, he laments, “It must not have been too great. I woke up alone.” It’s this soulfulness (as well as his deliberate cheesiness in consistently calling Annie “ma’am”) that puts Traven more in tow with the ironically angst ridden Gen-X leading men of the era. Notice the strength of his camaraderie with Harry and even the repartee with his superior, Mac (Joe Morton). This is a boy in a boy’s club who doesn’t brood but quietly suffers under the weight of how damn good he is at his job and how alienating that is for the finer pursuits of life. For the ‘90s action hero, sex was not something to pursue, but to be rewarded with once the day was saved. Speed doesn’t end with a kiss for no reason.
Reeves’ male gaze would be perfected with 1999’s The Matrix. As computer hacker Neo, the actor became a ghost of his former self. Svelte, pale-faced, and with eyes–so attentive in Speed–now merely awestruck, the emphasis for this action character was less about the physique and more about the ability to transmit the audience’s wish fulfillment. In Speed, when the viewer sees Reeves dangle under a bus, he or she thinks of the actor’s prowess in committing to the stunt. Five years later, when Reeves flips through the air in The Matrix through a CG assist, all the viewer can think is how they wish they could do that.
The Matrix would usher in the current era of the superhero: the faceless, formless man unencumbered by physics and with little charm to boot. The sexy and sensitive shtick of years prior would be replaced by self-reflexivity and special effects. Reeves would be swallowed up by two more sequels and defer to more eclectic fare (Thumbsucker comes to mind). By the time the 2000’s rolled around, it was the actor saying “Whoa,” not us.