When he first came to prominence in the 1980s, Keanu Reeves didn’t appear to be a likely candidate for one of America’s most beloved actors.
Over the course of his four-decade career, though, Reeves has used his deceptively laid-back presence and acting style in service of a variety of genres, playing parts in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and pop-culture touchstones.
It helps that Reeves comes off as such a pleasant, enthusiastic guy in real life, with genuine respect for his audience and for every role he plays. He can be funny and self-deprecating, but he can also make profound observations about life feel honest and true. Here are the seven best Keanu Reeves movies that showcase the actor at his best, from pulse-pounding action to goofy comedy and more.
Weary assassin John Wick has become Reeves’ signature role in the later part of his career, and it all began with this comparatively modest action movie. Before the sequels expanded the mythology of John’s universe to encompass an elaborate criminal underworld with rules and hierarchy, this movie presented a simple revenge story about a man looking to avenge his dog and retrieve his car.
At the beginning of the movie, John is retired from his hitman career and mourning his late wife, whose final gift to him was a cute little beagle. He picks his guns back up after some foolhardy young Russian gangsters kill the dog while stealing John’s equally precious Mustang. Director Chad Stahelski stages lean but inventive action sequences, relentlessly hurtling John toward his final confrontation with an unforgiving crime boss (Michael Nyqvist).
Watch on Peacock
Reeves is an essential part of the Wachowskis’ bold reinvention of the sci-fi action spectacle, anchoring the movie as the low-key hacker and possible savior of the human race known as Neo. Thanks to freedom fighters Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo discovers the secrets of the Matrix, a simulated world designed by robot overlords to keep humans docile and obedient.
Once he understands the true nature of the world, Neo can bend it to his will, and Reeves conveys that transition from meek corporate peon to powerful warrior with simple vocal inflections and body language. The Matrix is a landmark in special effects and action filmmaking, but it’s also a human story about two people falling in love while trying to save the world, and Reeves is at the center of it all.
Watch on Max
A Scanner Darkly
Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick is one of the key influences on The Matrix, and Reeves goes back to that source with this adaptation of one of Dick’s best-known novels, from writer-director Richard Linklater. Linklater uses rotoscoping, an animation technique that involves drawing over live-action images, to capture the trippiness of Dick’s drug-infused story. Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover operative who’s become completely immersed in the highly addictive Substance D.
Dick’s novels often question the nature of his characters’ reality, and Linklater does the same in the movie, with shifting visuals that keep both Bob and the audience consistently off-kilter. Bob’s own identity seems unstable, thanks in part to the technology that he uses to mask his appearance, and Reeves keeps him tethered to his core self even as everything around him loses meaning and coherence.
Watch on Tubi (free with ads)
Reeves cemented himself as a major action star with this crowd-pleasing blockbuster, which also features a breakout performance from Sandra Bullock. Writer Graham Yost comes up with one of the best high-concept hooks in action-movie history, with a Los Angeles city bus that is rigged to explode if its speed dips under 50 miles per hour. Reeves’ dedicated cop Jack Traven manages to board the bus as it’s driving, and he keeps the passengers calm while devising a solution to the deadly dilemma.
Jack also finds time to romance Bullock’s Annie Porter, who has to take over at the wheel when the bus driver is injured. Director Jan de Bont delivers a series of fantastic action set pieces, maintaining the tension and excitement for nearly the entire running time, while Reeves carries it all with charm and determination.
Watch on Starz (via Prime Video)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Reeves and Alex Winter make for the perfect pair as the title characters in this amiable time-travel comedy about two good-natured if slightly dim high schoolers who are destined to unite the world. Before they can do that, though, Bill (Winter) and Ted (Reeves) have to pass their history class, and they get a bit of help from future disciple Rufus (George Carlin), who brings along a time machine disguised as a phone booth.
Bill and Ted take an adventure through history, meeting and befriending notable personages including Sigmund Freud and Billy the Kid. It’s a freewheeling, silly comedy with a sweet message expressed in Reeves and Winter’s amiable performances, and in Bill and Ted’s simple yet highly quotable philosophy: “Be excellent to each other.”
Watch on MGM Plus (via Prime Video)
The Devil’s Advocate
It’s not easy for an actor to hold their own opposite Al Pacino’s late-period scenery chewing, but that’s exactly what Reeves does in this ridiculous but highly entertaining supernatural thriller. Pacino steals the show as lawyer John Milton, who is the literal devil, and Reeves balances him out as ambitious but conflicted young attorney Kevin Lomax.
After winning a seemingly unwinnable case, Kevin gets an offer to join Milton’s high-powered New York City firm, where his clients will include some of the worst people around. As Kevin loses himself in Milton’s glamorous world, his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) tries to keep him from giving in to the dark side. Reeves finds the reality in such an unreal story, making the battle for Kevin’s soul feel meaningful within the movie’s heightened representation.
Watch on Tubi (free with ads)
Reeves has cultivated such a reputation as a nice guy that it’s a bit jarring to see him play someone so sour, but that juxtaposition works to the advantage of this dark romantic comedy. Reeves and Winona Ryder play two reluctant guests at a wedding held at a fancy California getaway. They take an instant dislike to each other, but they eventually bond over their mutual distaste for weddings and their fellow guests.
Writer-director Victor Levin focuses the movie on the two main characters by making them basically the only people onscreen, and the only ones who have any spoken lines. Reeves and Ryder have strong, spiky chemistry, and their characters’ gleeful misanthropy is infectious. It’s refreshing to see a romance between two middle-aged burnouts who are surprised to discover some spark of hope left in their lives.
Watch on Starz (via Prime Video)
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and TV for Vulture, Inverse, CBR, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.