For much of his career, Keanu Reeves had a reputation as a mediocre actor. Everyone knew he was amazing in action scenes, but people joked about how wooden he could be when required to emote. More recently, however, the same limitations that earned him this reputation have become qualities he is celebrated for, because no one else performs the way he does. Reeves is a beloved figure on screen and off, as Matthew Perry found out the hard way. This reappraisal of Keanu Reeves isn’t just due to his status as one of the internet’s favorite celebrities; it’s because there’s actually nothing mediocre about his performances.
Reeves is no chameleon, but his earnest space cadet thing is effective in so many different contexts. He’s played traumatized teens in River’s Edge and Permanent Record, romantic leads in The Lake House and Sweet November, and compassionate doctors in Something’s Gotta Give, Thumbsucker, and To the Bone. His persona is so defined that it’s all the more effective when he goes in the opposite direction and plays bad guys, like he did in The Gift, The Watcher, and The Neon Demon. Of course, he will always be best known for his action work — especially now that the John Wick franchise has defined the third act of his career. On the eve of John Wick: Chapter 4, we’ve compiled a list of some lesser-known performances that highlight his stealthily broad range.
Before we get to the list, a note on criteria. For the purpose of this list, “deep cuts” are defined as quality Keanu Reeves movies that were box-office flops and/or unpopular with critics when they were released. This means movies like The Matrix, Speed, and Toy Story 4 aren’t on the list, obviously, but it also means no Point Break, The Devil’s Advocate, or Constantine either. And they actually have to be good, so Johnny Mnemonic doesn’t make the cut, even though it’s a favorite of so-bad-it’s-good movie aficionados. The list also has a couple of highly regarded indies that folks who only know Reeves’ blockbusters may not have seen. And to save you a couple bucks, all the movies included have at least one free or subscription streaming option.
From dreamboat kid to world-weary, patchy-bearded man, here are nine Keanu Reeves deep cuts that reveal the many faces of John Wick.
Three years before Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure made him a big star, Reeves had his breakthrough role in the 1986 teen crime drama River’s Edge. This unrelentingly bleak look at Reagan-era disaffected youth follows a group of high school friends after one of them, nihilistic wastoid John (Daniel Roebuck), murders his girlfriend for no particular reason and shows her body to his friends. Reeves plays Matt, the only member of the group disturbed by John’s actions. Matt is a budding alcoholic from a broken home who’s so alienated from his own emotions that he can’t articulate how he feels about what John has done, but we see him treat people with care when no one else does. River’s Edge is where Reeves’ primary on-screen persona — a little naive, a little detached, but fundamentally kind — started to take shape.
River’s Edge is not as deep a cut as some of the others on this list. It was well received upon release and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Picture. But it’s extremely underrated for how good it is. Writer Neal Jimenez’s keenly observed script and director Tim Hunter’s sense of milieu combine to make what has been called “the darkest teen film of all time.”
River’s Edge is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, Freevee, and Redbox, for free with a library card on Kanopy, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Redbox.
The Night Before
In this 1988 teen comedy, Reeves plays a very different kind of character than he usually plays: a nerd. Yes, his earliest comedy lead role was an Anthony Michael Hall type. He’s not especially believable as the vice president of the astronomy club — he’s young Keanu Reeves, after all — but he’s very believable as a naïf who’s completely out of his depth.
Reeves plays Winston Connelly, a total dweeb who’s going to prom with the head cheerleader, Tara (Lori Loughlin, long before Operation Varsity Blues), because she lost a bet. The movie begins with him regaining consciousness in an alley in the middle of the night with no idea how he got there. He has to piece together what happened to him earlier that night — and figure out where Tara is now. He embarks on a wide-eyed suburban boy’s journey into the East Los Angeles underworld. Reeves is charming and funny as he grows out of bewilderment into newfound self-confidence over the course of the movie. It’s sort of like a teen comedy version of After Hours.
The Night Before is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi and The Roku Channel, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon and Vudu.
My Own Private Idaho
Director Gus Van Sant’s 1991 indie classic is a queer cinema landmark and all-around excellent film. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the film elevates street hustlers to mythic figures while keeping them grounded in emotional reality. Reeves plays Scott Favor, a capricious young man slumming it as an act of rebellion against his wealthy politician father before he ultimately inherits his family’s fortune and returns to moneyed society. He’s the opposite of his narcoleptic friend Mikey Waters (River Phoenix), who was abandoned by his family and lives the life of a hustler because he has to. Mikey is in love with heterosexual Scott, one of many sources of heartache for him.
It’s Phoenix’s movie — it’s hard to separate his tragic character from his own biography, since he died two years after My Own Private Idaho was released — but Reeves gives what’s still one of the best performances of his career. Reeves communicates a deep pain through the cracks in Scott’s facade and delivers the Shakespearean dialogue with authority.
My Own Private Idaho is available to stream free with a library card on Hoopla, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, Vudu, and other platforms.
The year after The Matrix, Reeves had one of his best villain roles in this Southern gothic supernatural thriller. He plays an abusive husband named Donnie Barksdale, who doesn’t like that psychic reader Annie (Cate Blanchett) keeps advising his wife, Valerie (Hilary Swank), to leave him. He plays totally against type as a really, really bad guy. He imbues Donnie with a menacing physicality that’s truly frightening. He speaks in a Southern accent that demonstrates he put in hard work with a dialect coach.
The film comes from Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, with a script by Billy Bob Thornton (who’s not in the movie) and Tom Epperson. It’s Raimi’s most underrated movie, with a wonderful noirish atmosphere and a stacked cast that also includes Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, J.K. Simmons, and Katie Holmes as the femme fatale. Reeves doesn’t always get enough credit for how useful he is as a supporting player in an ensemble cast. His willingness to share the spotlight is a good example of his famous low-key generosity.
The Gift is available to stream on Starz. It’s also available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, Vudu, and other platforms.
A Scanner Darkly
It’s tempting to describe the 2006 sci-fi crime thriller A Scanner Darkly as “trippy,” but that’s not really accurate. It’s a druggy movie with distinctive hallucinatory visuals, but the drugs are amphetamines, not psychedelics. If there’s any “psych” here, it’s psychosis. Reeves plays a narcotics officer named Bob Arctor who gets addicted to “Substance D” while living among users during an undercover operation and gradually loses his mind. Reeves often plays naive characters who learn there’s a lot more to their reality than they realized — most famously in The Matrix, but also in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Street Kings, and uhhh The Matrix Resurrections, to name a few. A Scanner Darkly is the darkest take on the archetype he’s done.
A Scanner Darkly uses a hybrid animation technique known as rotoscoping, where animators trace over live-action footage to preserve the actors’ performances. The performances here are excellent, especially Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson as Bob’s tweaked-out roommates. When the three of them are on screen together, the movie really sings. Rotoscoping enabled director Richard Linklater to make an effects-heavy sci-fi movie for under $10 million. The result is a freaky cult movie that’s truer to Philip K. Dick’s paranoid vision than Blade Runner, Minority Report, or any other adaptation of the legendary author’s work.
A Scanner Darkly is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi, for free with a library card on Kanopy, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and other platforms.
Side by Side
Reeves isn’t just an actor. In 2012, he produced this fascinating cinephile documentary about digital versus celluloid film. It’s an open-minded and even-handed exploration of the benefits and drawbacks to making movies using traditional film or contemporary digital methods. The doc gets deep into the history, craft, and technology of filmmaking and does a great job of explaining technical concepts in layperson’s terms.
Reeves narrates the entertaining and informative explanatory segments and conducts the interviews with filmmakers. He used his clout to score interviews with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors, including Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, to name just a few of the dozens of interviewees. In the interviews, Reeves comes across as a humble and curious student who wants to better understand the art form he loves and has dedicated his life to.
Side by Side is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi, The Roku Channel, Plex, Pluto TV, and Freevee, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.
Man of Tai Chi
So far in his career, Reeves has directed one movie, the 2013 martial arts action-adventure Man of Tai Chi. The Chinese and American co-production tells the story of Tiger Chen (Tiger Chen, a skilled martial artist and close friend of Reeves’; Chen is playing a character with the same name as his own). Chen is a practitioner of an innovative, powerful new form of tai chi, the flowing martial art most commonly associated with elderly people in the park.
Reeves plays Donaka Mark, a shadowy organizer of high-stakes underground fight tournaments who wants to exploit Tiger’s talent and innocence. Reeves usually plays the guy figuring out how the world works, but in this one he switches it up and plays the guy controlling the world. The movie was a box-office bomb, and Reeves hasn’t gotten the chance to direct since. That’s a shame, because Man of Tai Chi is really solid, with lively camerawork that lets the fights play out in long, unfakeable takes. The authenticity of the stunt work foreshadows what Reeves would do in John Wick, which came out the following year.
Man of Tai Chi is available to stream for free with ads on The Roku Channel, Vudu, Plex, Pluto TV, and Freevee, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, and other platforms.
The Neon Demon
In 2016, Reeves had villainous supporting roles in two arthouse thrillers from auteur directors: Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. While the post-apocalyptic The Bad Batch is too aimless to recommend for anyone except the most devoted Keanu die-hards (or anyone who really wants to see him talk at length about sewage while sporting a ’70s-style glasses-and-pornstache combo), The Neon Demon is an underrated psychological horror movie that fans of challenging films will appreciate.
The movie follows a 16-year-old fashion model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles and quickly finds that everyone wants a piece of her youth and beauty. Her transition from wide-eyed naivete to red-pilled knowingness is the arc many of Reeves’ characters have undergone, so it’s easy to see what drew him to the film. He plays the disgusting manager of the sleazy motel where Jesse stays. It’s an ironic reversal of his typically amiable persona. Reeves is playing so hard against his own inherent likability that the character is even more disturbing than he would be if he were played by a more traditionally “evil” actor.
The Neon Demon is available to stream on Prime Video.
To the Bone
Reeves has played a doctor on a few occasions, most famously in Something’s Gotta Give, Nancy Meyers’ beloved romantic comedy, which is too big of a hit to include here. This list’s doctor representation has to be Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, a recovery drama starring Lily Collins as a young woman with anorexia.
Reeves plays Dr. William Beckham, an eating disorder specialist who welcomes Collins’ Ellen into his experimental therapeutic program, where patients live and recover together. He embodies compassionate tough love. He’s kind, but he tells Ellen the hard truth, which is that in order to be helped, she has to accept help. “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living,” he says. Later, he gives her a new name, Eli, which he thinks suits her better than her old-fashioned birth name. It’s a role that makes use of his laid-back decency. He’s not always gentle, but he is always kind.
To the Bone is available to stream on Netflix.