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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Keanu Reeves

Well known in contemporary popular culture as an icon of bombastic blockbuster action, thanks to roles in the Wachowski’s groundbreaking Matrix trilogy alongside the ongoing John Wick franchise, luck wasn’t always on the side of the Canadian actor Keanu Reeves.

Breaking down the door of the industry at the age of 19, Reeves starred in several minor TV roles before gaining an industry reputation for small dramatic roles in cinema. 

Flourishing to prominence throughout the 1990s, Keanu Reeves has grown into quite the cultural figure, garnering much attention for his pop culture influence in everything from Pixar’s Toy Story 4 to the video game Cyberpunk 2077. With a childlike sense of wonder, Reeves is much-liked in the industry even if his acting credentials have long been called into question. 

Living from within the bubble of Hollywood whilst still somehow managing to operate on the fringes of its influence, Keanu Reeves is one of contemporary cinema’s most loved actors, so just how did he end up in such a position.

Let’s take a look back at his six most definitive film roles:

Keanu Reeves’ six definitive films:

Youngblood (Peter Markle, 1986)

Keanu Reeves very first film role was one many years in the making, germinating when he was aged 15, dreaming of being a successful ice hockey goalkeeper. With aspirations to take his passion to a professional level he later decided to take up acting instead. 

Dropping out of high school when he was just 17, Reeves was granted a green card and travelled to LA three years later to pursue an acting career. Appearing in multiple minor TV roles and commercials, it wasn’t until 1986, and just two years working in the industry under his belt, that he would be given his first feature film role. 

It was Reeves’ childhood passion that would secure him the role of an ice hockey goalkeeper in Peter Markle’s Youngblood, appearing alongside Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze in the otherwise unremarkable film. It was however the film that would spark the actor’s illustrious career. 

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989)

Three years of hard graft, appearing in Thom Eberhardt’s The Night Before and Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons among other feature roles would bring Keanu Reeves to arguably his most influential starring performance. 

Strange and psychedelic, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would help to form the icon of alternative culture that Keanu Reeves represents today, taking Ted’s signature bohemian attitude to many of his future roles. Playing a charming, yet dimwitted teenager alongside actor Alex Winter, it was Reeves first role of true significance, even if it was one that continued to pigeonhole him as an actor merely capable of comedy roles. 

A massive cult success, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would make a household name of Keanu Reeves, now it was time to establish it in the right circles.

Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

Two years later and the Bill & Ted’s sequel, Bogus Journey, was set for release, though shortly before then, just days before the film’s release, was the matter of a small action film from Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break. 

Point Break would change the career of Keanu Reeves in more ways than one, catapulting him to Hollywood fame, particularly as the face of the modern hunky action star. 1994’s Speed would launch the actor even further, taking this signature bohemian attitude with him wherever he went. 

As Reeves comically flung himself out of a plane without a parachute during the film’s climax, he leapt into a career unknown, armed only with his good looks, a revolver, and a newfound maverick attitude. 

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

If there was ever one single year to change the life of Keanu Reeves, 1991 would be it, appearing in the aforementioned Point Break, comedy sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey as well as Gus Van Sant’s dramatic independent film, My Own Private Idaho. 

The trio of films, despite being wildly different, showcased Reeves’ acting versatility and demonstrated that Reeves was as suitable to a serious dramatic role as he was to a comedy or action film. Appearing alongside the iconic River Phoenix, Reeves and the late actor would spark a great friendship that would sadly end tragically when Phoenix passed away in 1993. 

In the landscape of modern-day cinema, Keanu Reeves has made a name for himself as a serious action star capable of the occasional dose of levity. Sounds like the perfect amalgamation of each of his three 1991 roles. 

The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 1999)

There is no film that launched Keanu Reeves more into the cultural mainstream than the groundbreaking filmmaking feat of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix, starring the actor in the lead role as a fantastical martial artist.

Waking up in a pod of thick red jelly, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is reborn into the real world, one plagued with eternal darkness and the overwhelming power of a robotic dystopia overseeing humanity’s slow demise. Here, he joins with other iconic characters, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to reclaim the world that’s theirs and destroy the Matrix.

A crazy, bombastic science-fiction epic, in many ways Keanu Reeves’ character of Neo is the one that best embodies the actors strongest qualities, with the film well toeing the line of action, drama and farce. 

John Wick (Chad Stahelski, 2014)

Such a journey shows a fairly straightforward route to Keanu Reeves’ modern success as John Wick, a no-nonsense action hero that merges the suave attitude of Point Break’s Johnny Utah with the action-hero ability of Matrix’s Neo.

Sparking two sequels and a fourth film currently in production, John Wick is quickly becoming Keanu Reeves’ most successful franchise, following the actor as an ex-hit-man who becomes embroiled with gang warfare after someone steals his dog. Eliciting the same energy as the roles of his own ‘90s action heroes, Reeves creates a compelling character for fans of the films to latch onto. 

The state of the actor’s career in a contemporary landscape is somewhat of a synthesis of each of his film roles, showing off an effortless sense of sincerity, whilst embodying a bohemian, eccentric lead character. Similar to his acting counterpart, Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves has managed to transcend the film industry and become an icon of popular culture in and of itself. It is not so much the films of Keanu Reeves that people love, it is the actor himself. 

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