Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
Like every other red-blooded, flag-waving American, I have been pre-programmed to love Will Smith. And what’s not to love about the multi-talented actor, especially in the late 1990s when he ruled television, the music charts and the summer box office? Even though his streak of movies grossing $100+ million had yet to begin in 1999 — a record he still holds to this day — he was a bonafide star, leading franchises and genre blockbusters like Men In Black and Independence Day. Which is why it makes perfect sense for Lana and Lilly Wachowski to have placed him at the top of their list to play the hero in their sci-fi magnum opus The Matrix. Sadly, Smith never got on board with the film’s premise, specifically the concept of their groundbreaking “bullet-time” effects.
And so, as fate — if you believe in that sort of thing — would have it, Smith would (regrettably) go on to star in Wild Wild West while Keanu Reeves stepped in and was born again as a new action hero. Much like Smith, Reeves had already proven himself as a compelling and capable leading man, especially in suspense thrillers like Speed and Point Break. Unlike Smith though, Reeves had starred in a series of duds in which he was either improperly utilized or miscast. The Wachowskis required a lot from Reeves, and he delivers so perfectly it’s hard to imagine there was ever another choice.
Imagine Will Smith spouting off Neo’s iconic line of “I know kung fu” or even something as simple as the “Whoa” he instinctively utters when Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) leaps across rooftops. Better yet, imagine either of those lines coming from Johnny Depp (Reeves’ primary competition for the role, whom the execs at Warner Brothers reportedly preferred). When I think of Smith, I think of swagger. Neo doesn’t have swagger. He’s too afraid and unsure of himself. Smith would have brought too much charisma and personality to Neo. The Matrix takes the classic hero’s journey and blends it so perfectly together with philosophical existentialism and science-fiction. Neo is a classic fish out of water — or rather, a classic test-tube baby out of pink amniotic goo — who just wants to understand the strange world in which he has awoken.
To really sell the Wachowskis’ vision, Neo works best as a stone-faced blank slate who is fully idealized when he embraces the Matrix and becomes more robotic in his mannerisms — which he really dives into during The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The sequels may be maligned as misguided or over-complicated, but Reeves remains a solid presence throughout.
Part of the long-term appeal of The Matrix franchise is the incredible world-building put forth by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. You want to learn more about this universe that these characters inhabit: the history, the cultural norms and the lives beyond the characters we already know. The minute details — from tertiary characters’ names to the license plate on Agent Smith’s car in The Matrix Reloaded — feel simultaneously purposeful and nonchalant. It’s not essential to catch every single reference, but once you realize the meaning behind them, you truly appreciate the care that went into crafting the world. Between releases, there were countless books, graphic novels, video games, animated specials, etc., that capitalized on fans’ thirst for more content from this world that had swallowed them up. The same effect worked like gangbusters for films like Star Wars and Avatar.
I could easily use this space to write about how The Matrix changed cinema or special effects or sci-fi or queer / trans representation forever, but I think that’s well-worn territory by now; the ideal time to do so was probably a year ago anyway, on the 20th anniversary of the first film. I could talk about the cultural impact the films have had, for better and worse. I could just as easily write about what the series means to me on a personal level and the relationship I’ve had with the films over the years. (If anyone wants to be regaled by my harrowing adventure to see The Matrix Reloaded on opening night, send me an email.) Indeed, the films rank at or near the top of my list of “movies I can’t wait to show my kids when they’re old enough.”
What remains without doubt about The Matrix series is that it revitalized and forever altered the trajectory of Reeves’ career. Often typecast as a handsome-but-dull leading man (the Bill and Ted films, Point Break), Reeves could be seen as a committed action hero, willing to put in the work. He not only performed most of his own stunts but shed the weight necessary for his scenes in the real world for an extra layer of verisimilitude. There’s a throwaway moment in The Matrix when Neo and Morpheus fight in the dojo where Neo imitates one of Bruce Lee’s trademark moves, which Reeves reportedly improvised.
Without The Matrix films, we surely wouldn’t have the John Wick franchise, as director Chad Stahelski performed as Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix series. Post-Matrix Keanu returned to the wilderness of sorts, as Hollywood was still unsure of what to do with the star. It turns out that the Wachowskis’ vision was so singular and focused that other directors couldn’t simply copy and paste what Reeves did into any old project for which he became available. Hollywood may have attempted numerous imitations in the wake of these films to try to capitalize on the revolutionary technology and visuals on display. But what they failed to realize as so crucial to their success is the existential deep-dive with which the Wachowskis laced each film. There will also be talk of rebooting or remaking the Matrix films — especially with the way The Matrix Revolutions capped off — though the impending Matrix 4 sequel, with most of the original cast somehow returning, will at least temporarily quiet those discussions.
Try as we might to remain in Wonderland and hope that The Matrix is safe, no property is truly incorruptible. The undisputed truth, though, is that nobody can replace Keanu Reeves as Neo. He is indeed the One.