Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

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April 27, 2016

Demolition

Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns with a considerably less ‘prestige’ tale of mental disintegration and rejuvenation than his previous film Wild.

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Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a jaded investment banker so inattentive he hasn’t noticed his refrigerator leaking for 2 weeks. His wife Julia (Heather Lind) is reminding him anew just before a fatal car-crash. Work is no escape from his grief because he works for his disapproving father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), and also he doesn’t really have any grief. A confession Davis makes in a series of over-sharing letters tangentially seeking a refund from a hospital vending machine. The letters touch stoner customer services rep Karen (Naomi Watts), and soon Davis is hanging out with her and mentoring her troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). This does not impress Karen’s boyfriend Carl (CJ Wilson). Phil and Margot (Polly Draper) are even less impressed, especially as Davis disdains their plan for a scholarship in Julia’s name; being busy demolishing Julia’s open-plan house.

Bryan Sipe’s script appeared on the 2007 Blacklist of unproduced gems, but it feels like a script that should have doing the rounds in the late 1990s. There are similarities with Fight Club, American Beauty, and, as Joe Griffin pointed out to me, Falling Down. Jay M Glen, editing his first movie, offers some terrific disjunctive cuts but this does not have Fight Club’s bravura nihilism despite Davis’ enthusiastic destruction of all the consumer comforts of his oh-so-modern abode. Instead, with Yves Belanger lighting his third straight film for Vallee and casting a warm sheen over everything, it’s more akin to American Beauty’s concern with the beauty of the quotidian. The slight note of Camus’ L’Etranger in Davis pointedly not crying at his wife’s funeral deceives; this is as philosophically facile as American Beauty’s plastic bag flapping in the wind.

So thank heavens there is another film in Demolition’s DNA: Vallee’s own towering C.R.A.Z.Y. Davis, in preferring to pay contractor Jimmy (Wass Stevens) to allow him destroy condemned properties than engage with Julia’s scholarship recipient Todd (Brendan Dooling), is quite obviously dynamiting his career and life, but Vallee’s skilful use of music magicks this nervous breakdown into a spiritual awakening. And even more importantly the ‘rejuvenation’ of a bored career man by a disaffected teenager would be a tired retread (not just American Beauty but Meet Bill) were it not for Judah Lewis. Lewis, in some shots reminiscent of the young Tina Majorino, gives a star-making performance as the Bowie-adoring androgynous teenager who bonds with Davis. There are notes of Edward Furlong’s John Connor in his bravado, but the notes of vulnerability sing, and Gyllenhaal matches them with nuanced despair.

Demolition is a good, engaging film that you keep hoping will find a higher gear but when it never does its obvious good nature predisposes you to liking it more than it arguably deserves.

3.5/5

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