For many, Keanu Reeves is the butt of the joke; the representation of Hollywood’s aimless leading man; the perfect example of lucky (“how did someone like Keanu Reeves get famous?”). And it’s hard to argue that Mr. Reeves does not deserve the ridicule, considering some of his more rudimentary turns.

There is a certain blankness to the man’s demeanor, a byproduct of the surfer dudes he played in the late 80s (the Bill and Ted films, Parenthood) /early 90s (Point Break) and the stoic heroes he took on in the mid-90s (Speed, Johnny Mnenomic, Chain Reaction).

With a blink disappeared the young thespian who offered interesting performances in small gems like River’s Edge, The Prince of Pennsylvania and Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece My Own Private Idaho. In his place was a B-list movie star slumming in half-assed romantic-dramedies (The Last Time I Committed Suicide, Feeling Minnesota, A Walk in the Clouds), only to be saved in 1999 by one of the best action movies ever made (you know the one). And the role he played? A blank-faced office employee/hacker turned stoic hero. Hmph.

How ironic that the actor’s biggest financial success offered a perfect excuse for all of the jokes.

But here’s the thing about Reeves – he takes risks. He’s an actor whose reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, which is to say he pushes himself. Sure, the studios seem to have his number in yawns like The Lake House, Street Kings and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but everybody’s gotta make a buck right?

Where the man thrives is in odd supporting roles for films with barely enough money to exist (Thumbsucker, in which he plays a strange, enlightened dentist, channeling his Siddhartha in Little Buddha) or small studio films that cost little enough for those financing to let things get a little creative. For the latter, consider Sam Raimi’s underrated psychological thriller The Gift, in which Reeves plays a white trash racist who may be a killer.

Or how about The Watcher, which has Reeves as a serial killer playing mind games with James Spader’s tortured ex-FBI agent. Sure, the film is formulaic and poorly put together, but Reeves’ turn is so off-key it’s inspiring. The same goes for his Conor O’Neill in the feel-good sports drama Hardball. The movie is sloppy comfort food, but Reeves as a charming loser with a serious gambling addiction feels genuine. This is a man with a problem and a desire to be saved, even if the film he exists in lacks much conflict despite its inner-city setting.

Perhaps it’s this “off key-ness” that makes it hard for people (in the U.S. at least) to accept Reeves as a tangible performer. In a film like Constantine, the man seems determined to give viewers a reason for why it had to be Keanu Reeves as John Constantine. The actor offers his jaded, groaning religious warrior with a smoking problem as Neo if he’d finally grown tired of the savior role. And while he doesn’t always succeed (trying to give Klaatu in TDTESS an emotional resonance, for example), it’s commendable Reeves is constantly trying to redefine his roleplay. Most actors (and actor’s agents) find that comfort zone that will keep getting lead roles and potential critical acclaim, even if that means playing the same essential role over and over again.

Nobody does the conflicted and charming leading man better than George Clooney (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air) and few jump into absurdist slapstick comedy with more vigor (O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading), but what does a purely evil George Clooney look like? It’s hard to say because Clooney’s never been given/taken the chance to play the role.

Reeves has. He’s also romanced women, younger (Katie Holmes in The Gift, Cameron Diaz in Feeling Minesota) and older (Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give and Robin Wright Penn in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), while having the foresight not to stoop as low as Speed 2: Cruise Control.

And though this astute script reading can’t be applied to all of his choices (recall some of the films listed above) he’s a smart guy, spreading out his talent across the spectrum of performance, literally trying his hand at everything. One of his biggest (and most overlooked successes) comes in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, in which Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover cop who becomes addicted to the drugs (and the lifestyle) he’s trying to bring down. Arctor represents the central conflict of the film: the struggle to take responsibility, or (on a bigger level) the individual’s struggle against a government-ruled society. The rotoscope animation only adds to the struggle between these opposites.

That said, the animation seems to distract viewers from Reeves’ control of the narrative’s lack of control, playing the apparent sole link between the two sides in the story, unable to grasp a handle on the situation. Granted, some could argue Reeves got lucky with this one. In playing someone who’s constantly confused, he may just simply confirm how confused the actor when the director calls “action.” But if that’s the case, it’s hard to explain his ridiculously over-the-top turn as hot shot attorney Kevin Lomax in The Devil’s Advocate, his character having an answer for everyone, even the devil. Even in that ham-fisted opus, Reeves is determined to out-overact Al Pacino. Now that’s bold.

And, assuming he’s as blank of a movie star as Americans seem to think, how does one explain the actor’s international bankability? Nearly all of his studio films perform well overseas, even critical duds like Street Kings or The Lake House. And these are his recent American flops, succeeding internationally at a time when other stars can’t seem to catch a break with their flicks, good or bad. Whether it be Bruce Willis or Will Ferrell or Julia Roberts or Russell Crowe, even though two of these actors sat on the Ulmer Scale’s top 10 of 2009, above Mr. Reeves. Someone over there must think he’s got something to offer, if a piece of garbage like Sweet November can make $40 million internationally.

Keanu Reeves may not be The One, but he continues to prove himself as one of the most willing performers out there, determined to prove himself in every film genre available.

Is Keanu worth the price of a movie ticket?

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