The Silence of Keanu Reeves' Heroes

The Matrix, Replicas and John Wick_Split - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest; Francisco Collazo/Replicas Holdings, LLC
The actor has built a career out of playing men of few words, which is why 'Replicas' feels like a departure.

Keanu Reeves is best served as an actor when he can be a man of few words. As a physical presence onscreen, he’s often able to communicate a single-minded, fierce sensibility. That taciturn, strong-but-silent quality is one of the reasons why the two John Wick films he’s starred in over the last few years (with a third on the way this summer) work so well. John Wick doesn’t communicate with his words. He communicates with his body and his weapons. No doubt, the John Wick franchise has given Reeves’ career new life, but life is, ironically, what’s lacking from both his performance and the entirety of his new film, Replicas.

It’s a strong possibility that Reeves says more in the first 10 minutes of Replicas than he did in at least one of the John Wick films. In Replicas, he’s as far removed from the role of deadly assassin as possible, playing a bioscientist named William Foster who works in a high-tech facility in Puerto Rico to transfer the minds of recently deceased soldiers into synthetic bodies. The experiments aren’t going well, to the point where William might be fired, but things get worse when his wife and three children are killed in a fatal car accident. This leads William to the desperate decision to use his now-dead family as guinea pigs in an expanded version of the experiment.

Reeves, for good or ill, likes to stretch his legs as an actor. In his youth, it was easy to associate him specifically and solely with his stoner-dude routine in the Bill and Ted movies, but he also co-starred in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and was a co-lead in Gus Van Sant’s tender drama My Own Private Idaho. But the role that seems most befitting his grim visage and tight way of delivering dialogue is action hero. First, there was Speed; then there was the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy. Whatever else is true of those films (and give Reeves credit for wisely backing away from Speed 2: Cruise Control), Reeves uses his body in the right way in them, doing a better job when he’s called upon to act physically instead of emotionally.

Unfortunately for Reeves (and for the audience), he’s called upon almost entirely to act emotionally in Replicas. The trauma of losing family members, of course, is what sets John Wick on his bloody mission in the 2014 original. But when John Wick’s heart is broken by the loss of his wife and the dog she gifted him, he gets mad, and he gets violent. When William Foster, the ostensible hero of Replicas, loses his whole family, he immediately decides to work with a colleague (Thomas Middleditch of HBO’s Silicon Valley) to clone his wife and two of his kids, and then transfer their original minds into their cloned bodies. (William and his friend are only able to steal three cloning pods from their office and install them in his basement, so he has to choose one child to not clone. It’s a very strange film.) While Reeves does his damnedest to make the scientific gobbledygook sing, it’s not his forte as a performer.

What’s most remarkable about Reeves’ last string of films is how few of them have gotten the big, mainstream release. The first John Wick was arguably a surprise hit — expectations may not have been super low, but when Chapter Two arrived in 2017, it was with the high hopes of people who were turned onto the brute force, swift choreography and extended action of the original. But in between these two films, Reeves worked primarily in indies, from Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon to Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch. Quality aside, Reeves’ choices of which projects to star or co-star in remain no less quirky and off-kilter; discounting the three John Wick films, Reeves’ biggest projects of the last five years include his cameo in (fittingly) Keanu, the Jordan Peele/Keegan-Michael Key comedy, and the upcoming Pixar film Toy Story 4.

So that makes Replicas a bit more frustrating to watch. The two John Wick films have made a big splash in Hollywood — outside of the Matrix series, it’s the only franchise that Reeves has been associated with for more than one film, and the films have also inspired an in-development TV series. From the opening scene of this sci-fi thriller, however, there’s the distinct feeling that Reeves just isn’t the right actor to play an embattled, emotionally haunted scientist with the ability to clone people and copy their neurochemistry into robots. (Typing out the premise of this movie only heightens its silliness.) Reeves is far from the worst part of Replicas — the script is pretty rough, to the point where it’s hard to imagine any actor elevating the material, as opposed to just steering into its goofiness — but his performance highlights his limitations as a performer.

This summer, we’re getting two doses of Reeves, first in John Wick 3 and then in the aforementioned Toy Story 4. However John Wick 3 ends up, since it’s a reunion of star, director and writer, you have to imagine that the film will play to his particular set of strengths. With that in mind, what may end up being more curious is his performance in Toy Story 4, because all we’ll have to work with is his voice. As Replicas shows, no matter how hard he tries as an actor (and the man is not phoning it in here), Keanu Reeves works best when he’s all but mute, more a physical than a verbal presence.