It wasn’t very long ago that Petr Knava dropped a bombshell into the Overlord Slack channel: a thirst-inducing movie still of Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing. And while that photo inspired its own post in appreciation of the overall level of attractiveness displayed by that film’s entire cast, our internal conversation took a different route. A more Keanu-centric route.
It all started simply enough — the Overlords more or less shouting our favorite Keanu movies at each other. The ones where he played a hero, or a villain, or a mildly confused person. The action flicks and the romantic comedies. The ones where he was long-haired, or bearded, or clean-shaven, or wearing an inappropriate turtleneck. We trawled through his IMDb credits, reminding ourselves of all the weird nooks and glorious crannies in his long and fruitful career. But while we all had favorite Keanu movies, we couldn’t quite agree on what the best ones were. It turns out that Keanu shines as brightly in a terrible movie as in a good one. Sometimes he’s perfect for his character, and sometimes he’s horribly miscast — but none of that actually hinders our enjoyment of his performance. So while nobody here is likely to argue that, say, his performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is objectively better than his performance in My Own Private Idaho… well, that doesn’t matter. Assessing “Peak Keanu” means setting aside concerns of quality, and focusing on all those many times when Keanu just resonated with you.
Here, then, is Peak Keanu as chosen by your Overlords — the performances we were inspired to fight for, and the performances we felt the most passionate about. There are so many more that could have been included (like, all of them — dude is basically 100% peak himself all the time), but what’s the fun in that?
“Rush Rush” — My early twenties are a blur to me. I remember very little from that alcohol-soaked time in Southern California; but aside from rolled tacos, Scrunchies, and lipstick that was waaay too dark for me, I also distinctly remember the video for Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush”. Why do I remember a video from 1991? Well, because first of all, I goddamn LOVED Paula Abdul and her rad dance moves, but mainly because, HOLY SHIT, KEANU REEVES IS PLAYING THE JAMES DEAN PART FROM REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE IN THIS VIDEO, what is even happening? Yeah, that was pretty much the first reaction that my friends and I had when this vid premiered on MTV (videos had “world premieres” back then. It was a time!) We watched it over and over and over. I’m sure one of us recorded it on the VCR for immediate viewing at any time, because seriously, why wouldn’t you want to watch this at any time? Do you even SEE the “acting” going on here? And I’m not talking about Paula! Keanu was really only “known” for Bill and Ted and Parenthood at the time. He’d been in other movies but hadn’t hit it big yet. We had seen Keanu be silly, goofy, funny, but not tortured and romantic. It was HOT. (Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t GOOD, but it was hot!)
You know what? I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to sell it. This video doesn’t need my help. Here, watch it yourself. You’re gonna’ see…
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey — Oh, you thought maybe Excellent Adventure would crack this list? Think again. Nobody is questioning whether Keanu’s role as Ted “Theodore” Logan is quintessentially Peak Keanu. It just is. He perfectly captures that whole dopey, breathy, peppy, inept yet sweet character — a guy who just wants to jam out with his best friend in their misspelled band, regardless of whether or not said band is going to bring about a future utopia.
But I’d argue that his performance really gels in the sequel. Perhaps it’s thanks to the heightened existential stakes. After all, his character does, you know, DIE, and play Twister with Death, and escape from Hell, and learn how to finally play music. He’s got a lot on his plate! But mostly, Keanu has to pull double-duty playing Ted’s evil robot doppelgänger — and it turns out that two Keanus is an effective shortcut to Peak Keanu! — Tori Preston
The Devil’s Advocate — There’s no question that The Devil’s Advocate is Al Pacino’s movie. You know the beauty that is his scene-chewing monologue, and you love it. “Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow.” But there’s something else going on in this movie, when you look a little closer. Keanu’s performance is … well, it’s not good. And yet. His mysterious Florida accent. The constant back-and-forth between being a city slick lawyer and an aw-shucks farmboy. His attempts to match Pacino’s heights of Pacino … Keanu is the exact opposite of an absentee landlord. He’s there, he’s present, he’s trying to do it all. And it’s magical. — Seth Freilich
Feeling Minnesota — Keanu Reeves is messy-haired perfection in the indie Feeling Minnesota. He’s charming, fantastically imperfect, and altogether different than he is in many other roles. There’s a spark that cannot be denied as he falls - literally - for ex-stripper Freddie (Cameron Diaz) and fights with her new husband/his brother Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio). It’s a Keanu that has been lost ever since he action-heroed in Speed and immersed himself in dark roles like Constantine and John Wick. It’s a reminder that the Sad Keanu meme isn’t a wholly accurate representation of the man as an actor or a person. Plus, who doesn’t like the whimsical, imperfect love stories of the late ’90s?— Jodi Smith
Speed — First of all: How is this movie 24 years old? Second of all, this is the Peak Keanu you’ve been looking for. I mean, just look at him:
1994’s Speed gives us Cheesy Action Hero Keanu: all short hair, smouldering righteousness, and crazy public transport stunts. Keanu is a better actor than many give him credit for, but still, this role was an easy one for him. Look at him, being all emotionally wounded and having a quick hand hold with Baby Sandra Bullock!
Look at that tiny hint of a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth!
And check out how cute he is when he saves the day and gets the girl!
I rest my case. — Hannah Sole
The Replacements — Here are two of my favorite things in film: A great sports story featuring a loveable underdog, and Keanu goddamn Reeves. So when these two things are joined together into 2000’s work of wonder The Replacements, it’s basically a gift from the gods. The Replacements has everything — Rhys Ifans as a drunk, smoking kicker, Jon Favreau as a beserker linebacker, a sumo wrestler, a tight end who happens to also be deaf, stripper cheerleaders, Gene Hackman as an ornery coach, it’s directed by the guy who directed Pretty In Pink (yes, really), and it stars Keanu Reeves as a washed-up quarterback with the greatest quarterback name ever, Shane Falco. It literally has everything.
OK fine, it’s trash. It’s such trash. It’s rife with cliches and stupid jokes and broad stereotypes. And you know what? Fuck you, I don’t care. The Replacements is ten pounds of fun stuffed into a dumb five-pound bucket. It’s silly, it’s irreverent, it features Keanu Reeves playing football underwater, for god’s sake. It features cheesy inspirational speeches and bar fights and guns and booze and frankly, I don’t know what else I can say to convince you. So instead, I’ll leave you with some inspirational words from the Church of Shane Falco: “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.” — TK Burton
A Walk In The Clouds — Ok, so first off, A Walk In The Clouds is objectively terrible. I know that, you know that, A Walk In The Clouds knows that. But you’ll notice this isn’t a contest of Best Keanu Performance. It’s Peak Keanu Performance, aka which role most precisely sums up the relatable angel we know as Keanu? And that role is as thoroughly good guy Paul Sutton. Paul Sutton goes to war even though it means leaving his new bride, played by Old Timey Grace Adler. Paul Sutton dedicatedly writes letters to Old Timey Grace Adler so she’ll know he’s still safe, and won’t be worried about him. Paul Sutton stays married to Old Timey Grace Adler even though she didn’t even read his letters, she doesn’t support his ambition, and doesn’t seem all that interested in him. And those are all the dedicated, selfless things he does before he meets the woman he ends up doing the sexy-vineyard-butterfly-wings thing with. Her.
Paul Sutton spends the whole movie just doing the right thing and being a decent guy. You need someone to pose as the father of your illegitimate child so your family will hate him instead of you? Paul Sutton’s your guy. Your father mocks and ridicules your guest for having the audacity to be an orphan (which, you know, WTF?), Paul Sutton will stick around. You need someone to head out into a chilly night to do said sexy-vineyard-butterfly-wings thing to keep the grapes from freezing, even though the owner of those grapes just mocked him for not having parents. Paul Sutton’s on it. You need someone to make out with after a flirty, smashing grape fight/foreplay session, but he’ll push you away because he’s not free, no matter how much he wants you? Paul. Effing. Sutton. Does all of this reliability and good-naturedness remind you of a certain ageless action star who makes up for in kindness what he lacks in talent? Of course it does. Keanu is Paul Sutton for the new century. Just hanging out, and being the most decent guy you know. Or as I like to call it, Peak Keanu. — Emily Chambers
The Gift — 2001’s The Gift comes in that super short villain era of Reeves’s career (see also: The Watchers). The Gift comes after The Matrix, but it’s likely he signed on beforehand because it’s also a rare supporting role for Keanu. And honestly, Reeves has been in better, more entertaining movies (although, Sam Raimi’s The Gift is a nifty and nasty little horror thriller co-written by Billy Bob Thornton), but Raimi coaxes one of — if not the best — performance of Reeves’s career out of him here. Ironic, then, that it’s as a racist, wife-beating redneck. Honestly, I think it’s the mullet — it gives him an extra dose of acting magic (and for those of you into mullets, The Gift is the, uh, gift that keeps on giving). It’s a great under-appreciated movie (with another incredible performance from Cate Blanchett), and Reeves is weirdly electric as a bad guy you actually hate. — Dustin Rowles
The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch — Keanu Reeves is a gift to us all, even when he’s being an unrepentant scumbag. His characters in The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch are both unbelievably awful, and yet he throws himself into the roles whole-heartedly, adding the perfectly right amount of revolting energy to each project. As a leering, pedophilic motel manager in The Neon Demon, he’s the film’s clearest villain, making a coven of cannibalistic witches seem almost sympathetic in comparison. (Almost.)
And then he goes cannibal adjacent again in The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour’s extremely divisive follow-up to her critically adored A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. As The Dream, the leader of a drug-dealing cult out in the desert, Reeves is nearly unrecognizable, but again, totally committed to the utter filth of his character. And I suppose that’s what makes Keanu so lovely and so lovable, how fully he dedicates himself to his roles, whether they’re in genre pictures or weirdo art house flicks or gigantic mainstream blockbusters. I mean, he is gross as hell in these two movies, and yet every time he appeared onscreen, I literally said out loud, “Ooh, Keanu!” He is a delight even when he’s disgusting. That takes skill. — Roxana Hadadi
Constantine — In the long and bloody history of comic books that were the victims of botched film adaptations, it’s hard to find one that was botched as badly as 2005’s Constantine. There are some basic surface similarities, but otherwise, it’s weak simulacrum of its source material.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, Constantine was salvaged by a clever — if unfaithful — script, some innovative set design, and a motherfucker of a cast — Rachel Weisz as a hard-boiled detective, SWINTON as an androgynous angel Gabriel, Djimon Hounsou as a witch doctor, Gavin Rossdale as a half-breed demon, a very young Shia LaBeouf as Constantine’s apprentice, and Peter Stormare — in perhaps the role of his life — as Satan. But anchoring it all is Reeves as a surly, jaded, misanthropic exorcist and mystic who drinks too much and is dying of lung cancer, and destined to go to hell for youthful transgressions. It’s an utterly bonkers story filled with a weird, fascinating cast, and yet Reeves plays it arrow-straight through the whole crazily nutwagons mess of a script. His natural woodenness works in the favor of his character’s deadpan, sardonic personality, and he becomes, somehow transcendent. He was such an unlikely choice for the role, and so incredibly ill-suited for it. As such, he’s terrible as Constantine, comic book character. But once you divorce yourself of the source material, you’ll find that he’s absolutely perfect for Constantine, weird urban gothic supernatural character piece. And we are all better for it. — TK Burton
Point Break — A former college footballer-turned-rookie FBI hotshot named Johnny Utah goes undercover in a community of surfers in order to track down a gang of adrenaline junkie bank robbers who like to commit crimes while dressed as former presidents of the United States. Ok, I’m rereading that sentence and maaaaaybe the plot of the movie is a bit of a stretch. However. Point Break is more than just Peak Keanu — it’s Peak Bromance. It’s Peak ’90s. It’s a movie about friendship and betrayal, and how easy it is to get away with thinly disguised homoerotic subtext if it’s between Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves and they spend at least 50% of the time dripping wet and/or wearing spandex.
Nothing in the film makes a lick of goddamn sense, and it doesn’t matter. Why would an FBI agent go undercover USING HIS REAL NAME? Why would surfers dress like bikers and play football on a sandy beach while wearing full leather? Why would the robbers continue to impersonate the ex-presidents even when they’re alone in their getaway car? The movie doesn’t understand how dogs work, or gas pumps work, or foot chases work, or INVESTIGATIONS work. But you know what it nails on the fucking head? The powerful bond between two dudes who have skydived together, and just can’t seem to kill one another, so one of them fires his gun into the air while screaming “Aaaargh!” That moment? That’s Peak Keanu. — Tori Preston
John Wick — Look, I know some people here are going to go to bat for some truly wonderful Keanu moments. Movies that have had years, in some cases decades, to sit in our shared consciousness, all the while growing in stature and accumulating cultural clout. Films with supremely quotable Keanu moments, instantly iconic Keanu looks. And they are all great (even the ones that aren’t) and deserving of our love. But, man, as far as any Peak Keanu ranking is concerned, there is only one performance that should really come out on top.
John Wick, the first one, is flawless filmmaking. It’s the kind of movie that—like Mad Max: Fury Road—lanced down like a bolt of lightning, singlehandedly reinvigorating an entire genre landscape, shaking the foundations and making everything else look like bloodless pastiche. It is modern mythmaking at its best, a love letter to movement and colour, and central to it all is its titular and tragic hero. John Wick, as a character, is a perfect distillation of everything we love about Keanu. Never the actor with the most raw talent or range, in John Wick Keanu plays to his strengths, making a pulpy, renegade angel of death believable and, crucially, emotionally relatable, thanks to the deep pathos he is so practiced at channeling now in his more mature years. He brings to the role too his unparalleled physical commitment, without which the film would just not work (not for nothing have Keanu’s training videos become the stuff of viral goodness); as well as his sense of low-key humour—that twinkle in Wick’s eye, hidden though it is most of the time behind sorrow and anger, is nevertheless palpable, and is central to the character’s appeal. John Wick is a man who exists in a parallel universe, a place of heightened reality and strange ritual. Events there should be unfolding at a significant distance from us. Yet thanks to Reeves’s nuanced and dedicated performance, the exact opposite is true: We believe every single moment of it, and we feel the necessity of his ridiculous, beautiful, blood-brenched quest. There’s no two ways about it: John Wick is absolutely Peak Keanu, and we are blessed by its existence, just as we are blessed by the man himself. — Petr Knava
Keanu — DUDE TURNED INTO A GODDAMN KITTEN FOR THIS MOVIE. ‘Nuff said. — Tori Preston
But the ultimate bestest Peak Keanu is: real-life Keanu, just hanging out. Sittin’ there. Usually eating something.