When it was announced last month that Keanu Reeves – Toronto's favourite adopted stoner nephew – would be joining Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey on stage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for one of their intimate "In Conversation With …" sit-downs, pegged to the annual Canada's Top Ten festival, the question that naturally followed was: "Why Keanu?"
There's a pressingly, boringly literal dimension to the question. Like: Why is TIFF hosting an "In Conversation With …" tête-à-tête featuring Keanu Reeves, superficially tied to the screening of the best Canadian films of last year, when Keanu Reeves neither appears in nor seems directly involved with any of these films? The answer, too, seems just as boring. Desperate to spike interest in Canadian cinema during the first weeks of the new year, where the combo of cold weather and post-holiday penny-pinching reduces even the most adventurous cinephiles to shut-in status, TIFF has sweetened the pot with a big-name movie star. And that's fine.
Still: Why Keanu? Why the consistent (I'd say just plain insistent) fascination with Reeves? In 2013, TIFF cobbled together a full-blown Reeves retrospective titled Whoa. The Films of Keanu Reeves. The program gathered movies from across his career, from his turn as a high-school slacker (River's Edge) to a different kind of high-school slacker (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), to dopey paper-pusher-turned unlikely hero (The Matrix, but also Bram Stoker's Dracula), to an undercover secret agent (Point Break) to an undercover secret agent who is also a cartoon (A Scanner Darkly).
The retrospective offered occasion for local media to think through Reeves's curious appeal. CBC Radio's Here and Now ran a piece on The Legend of Keanu Reeves, following the actor's vapour trails through the Toronto school system – anyone who came of age in Hogtown in the eighties knows someone who knows someone who took shop class with Keanu. City blog Torontoist indexed the number of times Reeves uttered his trademark bafflement – "Whoa!" – across a number of his films. The Globe offered an evaluation of the actor's canon in an effort to strike back against his frequent role as "critics' punching bag."
The hubbub spoke very plainly to the shifting mood in critical appreciation, priding acts of reassessment and resuscitation over plain, dull, appreciation. (Did anyone ever ask why Robert Redford or Marlon Brando were full-blown movie stars, or have to mount a defence for peak-period Katharine Hepburn?) Find the vocabulary for describing an actor's – or director's, or author's, or pop star's – relatively limited range of talents, bind it with current social milieu, set the oven to "overcooked" and in 45 to 50 minutes you've got yourself a piping hot take.
When two New York Times critics took up column inches – and their digital equivalent – debating whether Keanu Reeves was a good actor or a bad actor, the real answer was obvious. Keanu Reeves had become something more important than a good or a bad: He'd become a proposition. Battle lines drawn in the sand. Defenders on each side slapping their critical cudgels into sweaty palms, bleating, "KEANU REEVES GOOD!" and "KEANU REEVES BAD!" at one another.
Last year saw plenty of fence-sitters drawn to the pro-Keanu pool. The release of the revenge-actioner John Wick last October had the now 50-year-old Reeves reprising his stiff, stilted shtick as a retired hit man re-entering the fray to avenge the death of a small dog. With its efficient action sequences, effortful cinematography and nerdy wink-nudge references to hit man cinema of yore, John Wick won over many reviewers. (Though not, for the record, this one. As B-grade 2014 actioners go, I'll take Adam Wingard's The Guest, with its grim humour, mesmerizing dark-wave electro score and unlikely tone that imagines Universal Soldier by way of Dawson's Creek.)
Whether the rhapsodies resulting from John Wick were just more cases of a modest cultural object's meagre charms being enthusiastically overexalted, the film offered a way forward for Keanu and his battle-hardened canonists. Call it Reeves-sploitation: The actor's stunned bewilderment becomes an air of composed control, his clipped line-readings now mark the bare-bones efficiency of an aging action hero with little time for zippy one-liners. Reeves had previously stumbled over these sorts of peppy action-hero ripostes in Speed, the 1994 Die-Hard-on-a-bus … uh … vehicle, one of the more substantial attempts to position him as a Hollywood action hero. But through John Wick, all those niggling faults that have long dogged Keanu's career as on-again, off-again punching bag become virtues, like starchy straw spun into campy gold.
Keanu's champions will likely always carve out a place for him in a movie-going milieu that has little use for him, just as TIFF will find any excuse to parachute-drop him into a Cancon film festival with which he's only really associated by being a card-carrying Canadian. Keanu's presence – that whoa factor – is its own validation. For many, the answer to "Why Keanu?" will always be a dopey, shrugged, self-justifying, "Well, why not?"