TORONTO — Overexposure can dim the brightest Hollywood star — except, it seems, Keanu Reeves.
The prolific Toronto-bred action hero is riding high on a dizzying array of film and TV roles while internet memes and tributes have exploded in recent months with unified adoration.
The so-called Keanuaissance is sweet justice for devotees of the heartthrob, who has weathered decades of critical pans that often dismiss his acting as little more than wooden portrayals of himself.
Most notably, the 54-year-old is dominating the box office with “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” which pushed the cult franchise into the mainstream when it debuted at #1 mid-May, and appears in last weekend’s #1 film, ”Toy Story 4,” as the voice of bombastic Canuck stuntman Duke Caboom.
“Suddenly, he’s at the top of his game and he’s leading a franchise that I don’t think … anyone thought would achieve this kind of status,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian says from Los Angeles, referring to the violent ”John Wick” film series that has amassed more than $500 million worldwide according to his data.
“Keanu Reeves has this cool factor that’s pretty undeniable, and the guy builds motorcycles — he has that Arch Motorcycle company. He’s well-known for being super-friendly, affable, down-to-earth kind of guy.”
The preternaturally youthful star is a rare celebrity to have anchored culture-shifting hits in each of the past four decades, including “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in ‘89, “Speed” in ‘94, “The Matrix” franchise in ‘99, and ‘03; and the “John Wick” instalments that launched in ‘14.
It’s a testament to Reeves’ iconic stature that he turned up as an outsized version of himself in the Netflix romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe” in late May. It pokes fun at the myriad stereotypes projected onto his low-key image by casting him as a self-involved windbag full of obnoxious zen platitudes.
Dig deep and you’ll also find guest appearances on the detective comedy “Swedish Dicks” on Super Channel, and his turn as a misanthropic bachelor in last summer’s box office flop “Destination Wedding,” now on Amazon Prime Video.
“It’s been like the Keanu year, he’s doing well,” acknowledges Pixar animator and fellow Canuck, Benjamin Su, who animated Reeves’ voice for his introductory scene as an insecure plastic stuntman in “Toy Story 4.”
“Duke was originally like a side-joke character and I think when he came in and he started to delve into the guy’s past a little bit more and figure out what was driving him, it forced us animators and the writers to dig a little deeper into the character.”
What results is an unabashedly patriotic portrayal in which Duke declares: “Yes, I Can-ada!”
“Duke can’t help it,” Reeves says in production notes for the film. “He’s a showman and a daredevil — he has to perform. It’s who he is. It was great to express my inner Duke Caboom.”
Even avoiding the multiplex is no guarantee to escape the weirdly omnipresent Reeves, as Twitter is awash with random videos suggesting one could encounter the actor at any moment: ambling into a Carl’s Jr., giving up his seat to another passenger on the subway, assisting fellow airline passengers waylaid by an unexpected detour, simply getting groceries.
Largely absent on social media is Reeves himself.
The man is famously guarded about his personal life and that seems to have lent an air of mystery, says Dergarabedian.
At least two childhood acquaintances challenge an especially persistent image of a sad loner, epitomized by the “Sad Keanu” meme that made the rounds nearly 10 years ago.
Instead, 55-year-old Maia Frumhartz describes a reserved but athletic, happy-go-lucky teen with a solid circle of friends back when they hung out in the summer of 1983.
She says they met the year before when she was 18 and each lived in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. A mutual friend brought him to a party she was hosting, and he struck her as a shy “wallflower.”
“He was kind of a mousey kid, a quiet, shy kid but the next summer he kind of started to come out. He was 18 that summer and really active and you could tell he was more confident,” says Frumhartz, who went by Judy as her first name back then.
“We’d go play tennis, we would take bike rides. Once we had our licences we were driving in cars, just partying,” says Frumhartz, adding that life took them down separate paths the following year. “Keanu was a great dancer, I remember loving to dance with him.”
Jason Kay says his older brother grew especially close to Reeves after meeting around junior high, and the two remained close into their early 20s, even as Reeves’ career took off in Hollywood.
In high school, Kay says Reeves was a talented hockey goalie who was good enough to try out for a major junior hockey team but chose to pursue acting instead.
“I remember when we talked about it, 25 years ago or whatever it was, he said that he just didn’t see himself in a dressing room after games,” says Kay, two years his junior. “It was the acting that was his passion.”
Flash forward to May of this year, and we find Reeves officially being embraced by Hollywood at last with his signature, hand and footprints immortalized in concrete at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
Back in his hometown of Toronto, the Beirut-born actor of Hawaiian, Chinese and British heritage has yet to receive a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
But there’s no sign his career is slowing down any time soon.
Reeves sent gaming fans into a frenzy in June by announcing he’d lent his voice and likeness to the upcoming sci-fi role-playing video game “Cyberpunk 2077,” and upcoming film projects are said to include a return to the slacker character that helped start it all, “Bill and Ted Face the Music”, as well as another “John Wick” outing.
Dergarabedian suggests Reeve’s reinvention as an R-rated action hero has gone a long way towards shifting a spotty film legacy for the better.
Or maybe it’s his sheer likeability that allows audiences to forgive multiple misfires such as the savagely reviewed “Replicas,” which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and 2008’s misguided remake “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
The fact Reeves has made a point of alternating big-budget popcorn flicks — think 1989’s “Parenthood,” 2003’s “Something’s Gotta Give” — with more challenging indie fare — there was 1991’s “My Own Private Idaho,” 2005’s “Thumbsucker” — suggests there’s long been more to Reeves than many give him credit for, says Dergarabedian.
“I think it’s just in his DNA to be low-key about everything and let the work speak for itself. That, I think, is the absolute key to longevity.”