The Cult of Keanu: How True Believers Drove the “John Wick” Franchise to Wild Success

Pushing 60—Whoaa!—Reeves’s strangely enduring stardom is as powerful as ever, especially with yet another series flick in theaters

Among action franchises, the adventures of John Wick have become a mini phenomenon. Wick is a renegade hitman drawn out of retirement by a Russian crime lord’s son who stole Wick’s car and killed the small dog given to him by his late wife. As the gangster boss tries to explain to his clueless kid, Wick isn’t the boogeyman—he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman. This has set in motion Wick running afoul of an elaborate assassination conglomerate called the High Table, and as John Wick: Chapter 4 opens, all the boogeymen in the world are after him. In the tradition of action tentpoles, each installment has become glossier and more spectacular. Razzle-dazzle notwithstanding, buttonhole your random Wick zealot in the theater as to the single greatest reason for the series’ ongoing success, and nobody will give you any answer but one. Welcome to the Cult of Keanu.

No franchise likes the idea of its star being so requisite, but there isn’t another actor alive who could portray the avenging angel of dead puppies with the conviction and persuasive lethality of Keanu Reeves. Part of this is a physicality that remains credible even as he ages, part of it is chops—as an actor, Reeves is underrated in the way Tom Cruise used to be—and part of it is the sort of star power that’s gone out of fashion, that unquantifiable something by which an actor inhabits a role while bringing to it a persona bigger than the character and maybe the movie itself. It’s Reeves who distinguishes the Wick pix from all the superheroes, Transformers, Bonds-in-transition, and missions ever more impossible.

Reeves is underrated in the way Tom Cruise used to be.

The Keanu paradox is that his appeal to his fan base is slightly ironic, even as Reeves betrays no sense of irony as a man or an actor. He was derided 30 years ago for his 19th-century-aristocrat-by-way-of-surfer-dude Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula, but the impression he made a bit too indelibly in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has informed his subsequent characters to their benefit. Even when he played an outright villain in Sam Raimi’s The Gift, Reeves’s naive ingenuousness brought an ambiguity to the story that wasn’t in the writing.

No other actor could make a grief-motivated assassin at once so guileless and deadly and cool, just as no other actor could deliver with quite the same combination of WTF wonder and messianic assurance The Matrix’s most immortal line —“Whoaaa.”—another blockbuster that is inconceivable with Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, or Leonardo DiCaprio, all of whom passed on the role. As Neo “the One,” as the vampire-seduced Harker, as the most-excellent Circle K guru Ted Logan, as The Gift’s wifebeater and suspected murderer, as Siddhartha in Little Buddha, and the barely hinged SWAT cop of Speed, and the junkie hustler of My Own Private Idaho, there remains in all of them the Beirut-born, Canada-raised, Anglo-Chinese-Hawaiian Zen product of four broken marriages whose life has been marked by personal tragedy, spiritual introspection, a generosity that’s given tens of millions of dollars to sick children, and a complete absence of movie-star temperament.

Predictably, each Wick film succumbs a little more to the bigger, badder, and noisier. In so doing, the series risks its essential asset getting lost. JW4 shoves its protagonist into an array of physical situations—including on horseback—when it needs to put him in a new emotional situation that takes advantage of a soulful actor in a soulless role.

In any event, as he pushes 60 (which itself makes one’s head explode), Reeves finally has become a bona fide superstar after four decades of hits, misses, jokes, and snarks that he has shrugged off with grace, perspective, and good humor. He has proved that the best revenge—assuming the word is in Reeves’s vocabulary even as Wick is about nothing if not revenge—is making himself indispensable to puppies and movies alike.

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