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.
“Cool breeze over the mountains.” For such a perpetually unruffled and legendarily kind movie star, the easygoing Hawaiian-language etymology of Keanu Reeves’ first name couldn’t be more existentially appropriate. Even at his most enraged onscreen, whether frustratedly emptying a magazine into the air or his enemies’ bodies, Reeves often embodies a certain serenity. Sure, this mad bomber has killed your partner, wired your new lady-friend to explode, taunted you all day long and is now giving you fits atop a speeding subway car. He will soon be decapitated, merely a pebble tossed into a stream that will soon resume its stillness.
But what of Reeves’ response to a real-world exploitation of his friendship and generosity? Could he so easily summon calm or would he angrily shout down someone on the other end of the phone line? Would he find amicable conflict resolution or loudly summon the lawyers? In other words: Would Keanu Reeves wrangle his way out of making a film on whose contract his name was allegedly forged … or would he just star in the damn thing and put it behind him?
The answer to that can be found in Reeves’ turn from 2000’s The Watcher — the Superfund-site equivalent of the era’s endless, thankless Se7en knockoffs, complete with piss-yellow color schemes, cheap camera tricks and shoddy digital effects all shot on film stock so cheap-looking that it may have been on the verge of igniting. Either way, a writeoff for Universal Pictures — for which the film opened at #1 and stayed another week … albeit on two of the worst weekends for box office in 20 years.
Co-starring Reeves as, of all things, a vicious serial killer of women, The Watcher would indeed be entirely unremarkable if not for the insightful backstory behind its making — which involves one of Reeves’ longtime buddies, his former rock band, a big betrayal of trust … and, of course, the largesse of a man named for a cool mountain breeze.
The Last Time I Committed Suicide is a 1997 film that co-starred Reeves but also featured Joe Charbanic in front of the camera (as Cop #2) and behind it — way behind it as a second second assistant director. Whether Reeves and Charbanic knew each other beforehand or met on that set, they became friends — with Charbanic joining Reeves on the road with his now-defunct band, Dogstar, to shoot promotional footage. At some point, Reeves allegedly made a verbal agreement to appear in The Watcher, a thriller that Charbanic wanted to direct and in which Reeves would make a brief appearance and be paid scale. Co-stars Marisa Tomei and James Spader (the latter then seeming to make any film where the contract included commas and zeroes) would get $1 million each.
This whisper on the wind attracted considerable attention — and even more money — to The Watcher, which eventually commanded a $30 million budget and significant rewrites to expand Reeves’ role into a co-lead. Reeves claims he never signed off on any script that came his way … but somehow his signature did make its way onto a contract — allegedly a fake signature from one of Reeves’ assistants.
Unable to prove forgery beyond a reasonable doubt, Reeves decided to forgo legal action and just film the movie anyway … with a few stipulations, which were that Reeves would not promote the film, he would be able to tell the world about the scenario after 12 months had passed and, presumably, that he would perform as much interpretive serial-killer dancing as he so chose.
The Watcher is filled with patently ridiculous moments such as these, and yet there’s always something in Reeves’ eyes that makes you believe … whatever it is he believes about the psyche of serial killer David Alan Griffin. Most of The Watcher finds Griffin delivering ceaseless flexes on FBI agent Joel Campbell (Spader) for all the fallen victims Campbell has failed to save from his violent wrath — including Campbell’s old love interest. It’s like Jon Hamm’s Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, only played for seriousness.
And in The Watcher’s indulgence of the genre’s usual bonded-predator-and-prey BS, Griffin has followed Campbell across the country to Chicago. (The city’s architectural majesty at least gets some spotlights in the second unit work, even if the helicopters-over-Lake-Michigan opener suggests a top-flight Andrew Davis-esque chase thriller that Charbanic, who has not directed a feature since, couldn’t possibly deliver.)
“Hey! It’s me,” Griffin says to Campbell during one of their many late-night phone calls. “Why’d you move here? It’s fucking cold here!” It’s the rare moment when Reeves doesn’t speak in a psychopathic flat affect that offers perfect pantomime cover for someone who decided to just as soon show up for this shambling mess and avoid a courtroom. In time, Reeves’ delivery comes to feel somewhat like a low-key ownership of the producers’ options. You can almost hear Reeves telling them he felt like doing several inscrutable dance sequences set to Rob Zombie music and, if challenged, letting them know — in a voice of equal placidity and moderate volume — that he could always go to court instead.
(A side note about the shady chintz of The Watcher beyond the Reeves stuff: Get a load of the No Doubt knockoff below, recorded for the film and used in a scene where Griffin tries to lure a street-urchin victim. Frankly, it’s amazing this didn’t end up going before a judge.)
Over time, Spader and Reeves elicit the pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat — not because of any tension, skill or recognizable human feeling, you silly head. Just in wondering whether Reeves and Spader might ever actually inhabit the same shot. Despite a prevalence of obvious shaggy-haired stand-ins for Reeves, The Watcher does wrangle a few unassailable same-shot exchanges between its leads — one of them at the grave of Campbell’s lover where Griffin delivers the admittedly amazing jab: “She loves me, she’s decomposing, she loves me, she’s decomposing.”
In hindsight, Reeves exhibited a shrewd instinct for damage control coming off the runaway success of The Matrix. Not that he had any project worth endangering between the first and second Matrix — having made this, a pair of disposable sports movies (The Replacements and Hardball), a pretty-woman-dying reunion with Devil’s Advocate co-star Charlize Theron (Sweet November) and Sam Raimi’s so-so ensemble thriller The Gift. Had Reeves gotten litigious, everyone would still remember the time Reeves sued some folks to get out of making a movie. No one is still talking about The Watcher. Well … almost no one.
Instead, the stream remained serene. The air remained pure. The breeze, like the man, remained cool.