Performances That Prove Keanu Reeves Is A Better Actor Than He Gets Credit For

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Vote up the performances that prove Keanu Reeves is a better actor than he gets credit for.

Keanu Reeves is not an easily definable actor, as he has appeared in virtually every cinematic genre. Some of his films - like Speed and The Matrix - have been massive hits, but he's also starred in celebrated indie releases like My Own Private Idaho. When you look over his filmography, it's hard not to be impressed by his diversity. 

Reeves kicked off his screen career with a short-lived job as a reporter for a Canadian kids' news program called Going Great. After moving to California, he booked a few commercials - including one for Coca-Cola - before landing his first significant movie gig in the 1986 Rob Lowe hockey drama Youngblood. After that, the film roles just kept on coming. 

Because Reeves is so good at playing characters who are not very bright, many people have unfairly assumed his on-screen ineptitude is more than just an act. However, in real life Reeves is both an intelligent performer and intuitive human being. More importantly, his acting chops have only gotten better over the years. The best Keanu Reeves roles prove beyond a doubt he's a massively underrated actor whose talent shouldn't be dismissed. 

  • John Wick - The 'John Wick' Franchise
    Photo: John Wick / Lionsgate

    Reeves is the title character in John Wick, a former assassin who comes out of retirement to exact revenge on the Russian synidicate that offed his beloved dog. What follows is non-stop action, as Wick goes on a bloody reign of terror.

    Some might argue the frenetic actions scenes and over-the-top stunts are the real stars of John Wick and its sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, but the fact is they don't work without Reeves. Although he'd made a handful of action pictures before taking on the role, the actor had never been involved in one that uses carefully designed visual compositions to highlight the character's inner demons. Reeves also skillfully adapted his deadpan approach to embody a man intent on retribution.

    Reeves gives an intensely physical performance in the two movies. Director Chad Stahelski worked with him to create a distinct style of movement for John Wick, and had him train so he could do almost all his own stunts. The character works so well because of that dedication. 

    1,990 votes
  • 2
    1,484 VOTES

    Donnie Barksdale - 'The Gift'

    The Gift is arguably Sam Raimi's least well-known film. This 2000 thriller stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a psychic who gets caught up in the search for a missing woman named Jessica King (Katie Holmes). The trail leads to Donnie Barksdale (Reeves), an awful man who had an affair with Jessica. He's arrested, but Annie's visions suggest he might not be the real culprit. 

    Reeves is largely known for playing either heroes or characters who are slightly clueless. For The Gift, he sheds the boyish, likable qualities and goes to a darker place. He proves shockingly apt at projecting evil in a credible fashion. His performance as a bigoted, aggressive man was described by many as "nothing less than a revelation." Under Reeves's watch, Donnie casts a palpable sense of menace over everything that happens in the story. This is a role unlike anything he's done before or since. 

    1,484 votes
  • 3
    1,724 VOTES

    The Matrix is one of the biggest hits of Reeves's career, having earned $171 million domestically and another $292 million worldwide. The actor takes on the role of Neo, a computer programmer who is prophesied to be “the One” destined to stop an artificial intelligence system from powering an illusory world with human beings. 

    Reeves only made one formal science-fiction film before The Matrix - the 1995 flop Johnny Mnemonic. This time, he found greater success. The movie was praised for mixing high-tech thrills with philosophical themes about the nature of reality. At the time of its release, the trippy, cutting-edge visuals were nothing short of visionary. However, none of that would have mattered had there not been a strong central performance at the core. Reeves, as was pointed out by Roger Ebert, opted to give a minimalist performance, embracing the cool vibe without feeling the need to overdo his character's heroism. Acting big is easy; showing restraint is much harder. 

    Neo earned Reeves awards nominations, an honor he hadn't previously achieved. For his work in the film, he received a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actor from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He also won "Best Male Performance" at the MTV Movie Awards and "Favorite Actor - Action/Science Fiction" at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards. 

    1,724 votes
  • 4
    854 VOTES

    Matt - 'River's Edge'

    The 1987 independent film River's Edge, which is inspired by a true story, is about a group of teenagers who respond with shocking apathy after learning one member of their group executed his girlfriend. Rather than alerting the authorities, they either ignore the atrocity or actively help to cover it up.

    Reeves plays Matt, a rather complex and interesting character. In some ways, he's the only one who has any semblance of a conscience, as he visibly reacts in horror to seeing the lifeless body and eventually leads the police to its location. However, he doesn't do it right away, and he later tells his love interest he doesn't really care too much about what happened. 

    River's Edge is a fascinating psychological portrait of teenagers who lack moral judgment. Reeves lays down strong work as a young man who does the right thing almost impulsively, rather than because he wants to make a difference. His ability to convey that gray area is a major contributor to the film's overall punch. 


    854 votes
  • There's a bomb on a crowded city bus, and it will go off if the vehicle drops below 50 mph. That's the basic premise of Speed, one of the biggest box office hits of 1994. Reeves is cop Jack Traven, who makes a daring leap on-board the bus in an effort to save the lives of its passengers. Along the way, he falls for Annie (Sandra Bullock), who grabs the wheel after the driver is taken out.

    Speed changed Reeves's career. It was his first really big action movie, and he nailed it. His work as the calm, cool, and collected Traven earned him comparisons to major action stars like Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford. Reeves's trademark sense of bemusement is put to good use, as Traven is continually required to bring a sense of logic to all the wild things he's stuck in the middle of. 

    After the film earned $121 million at the domestic box office, Reeves instantly became a bankable big-screen action hero. 

    1,532 votes
  • 6
    761 VOTES

    Scott Favor - 'My Own Private Idaho'

    My Own Private Idaho is a unique re-imagining of William Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V. River Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a narcoleptic hustler who is taken under the wing of the more experienced Scott Favor, portrayed by Reeves. Scott is about to inherit a fortune from his disapproving mayor father, after which he plans to retire from sex work. The two form a quick bond, and Mike expresses a desire to turn their frienship into romance. But once the money arrives, Scott follows through with his plan to leave the streets behind, much to his friend's dismay. 

    Writer/director Gus Van Sant borrowed a lot of the plot structure from Shakespeare's work. The playwrights's influence is most obvious in the relationship between Scott and his dad, as well as through the inclusion of a Falstaff-like mentor who offers advice to Portland's young hustlers. The story and its approach are obviously ambitious, and the use of stylized Elizabethan dialogue only ups the difficulty level. Because of the skill with which it has all been handled, My Own Private Idaho is widely considered a staple of New Queer Cinema

    Reeves earned widespread praise from critics for effectively playing a character who has closed himself off emotionally in order to become a hustler - a choice viewers quickly realize he has made mostly to rebel against his dad. Reeves makes audiences believe Mike falls for Scott, and that Scott's ability to reciprocate only goes so far. As for Reeves's chemistry with Phoenix, Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel astutely pointed out his "amazing ability to play off the rhythms of his co-stars." 

    761 votes