Keanu Reeves is one of the biggest stars in the world and has been for decades now. While he has stretched his legs as an actor (Sweet November, anyone? Just me? OK), it’s not a stretch to say he’s best known for his action films.
As he should: in his decades-long career, the seemingly ageless Reeves has starred in some of the most iconic action films ever made. With a cool acting style and even cooler attitude, Reeves is a sympathetic everyman that finds himself in extraordinary circumstances that he manages to triumph over, Keanu Reeves is possibly the best action film star of the 21st century.
But an actor acts, and if you’re known for your action films you will be cast in a lot of action films. However good they may have sounded at the time, not all of them will be The Matrix or John Wick in their quality. With the recent blockbuster release of John Wick: Chapter 4, let’s take a look back at 14 Keanu Reeves action films ranked from worst to best.
14. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
This sci-fi action movie is widely regarded as one of Keanu Reeves’ weakest. In the corporate-controlled dystopian future of 2021 (which, fair enough), information is the most valuable commodity. Johnny (Reeves) is a data courier with a chip implanted in his head (guess they never invented flash drives in this world), and the film follows his adventure in a poorly detailed future to…the good guys? But the bad guys(?) want the information. And Johnny’s trying to do this job so he can get his implants removed to recover his childhood memories(???).
If you can’t tell by this vague plot description, the film is a mess. The plot is all over the place and not imparted well through the art of film, which is usually the main point of making a movie. The action is as clunky as the dialogue, with a lack of fluidity and coherence. They are also poorly edited, appearing to have little tension and often occurring in small spaces that lack any sense of setting or spectacle. Choppy, poorly written, and featuring one of the most wooden performances from Reeves in his career, Johnny Mnemonic is easily the worst of his action films. Fortunately, they got better.
13. Chain Reaction (1996)
Though they don’t get better too quickly, as his next year’s action follow up, Chain Reaction, demonstrates. With a decent cast and able action direction (Andrew Davis, who previously helmed Above The Law, Under Siege, and The Fugitive), this sci-fi action thriller leans too heavily on the ‘thriller,’ too little on the ‘sci-fi’ and barely any ‘action’ elements. Which would be confusing if one remembers the trailer of this film, consisting of pretty much all of the ‘action’ in the film.
Reeves finds himself playing a technician at a laboratory that’s creating a new source of power. He and his co-worker (played by Rachel Weisz) are framed for the murder of the boss and go on the run, trying to stay alive as they clear their names. The ‘action’ is weak, involving outrunning fireballs, a few chase scenes, and that’s pretty much it. A mish-mash of genres with none of them ever quite working, Keanu was only two years out of his breakthrough role in Speed and it seemed the action was already slowing down.
12. Street Kings (2008)
Disgraced cop Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is an alcoholic mourning the death of his wife when he’s suddenly implicated in the death of a fellow officer. Finding himself in the midst of a larger Internal Affairs conspiracy, Ludlow has to find out the truth, leading to violent conclusions involving almost everyone near to him.
A hard-boiled crime thriller with plenty of shootout sequences, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. The story is also typical and viewers may be checking their phones during dialogue scenes. Worse, the film ends up being so unendingly bleak you’ll tune out after the third or fourth gunfight. The film is also filled with notable actors (including Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, and Chris Evans), most of whom are dead by the end. It’s like an off-label The Departed. There would be better Keanu Reeves films in the future involving creative, riveting shootout sequences, but this film is like an undercooked cake that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
11. 47 Ronin (2013)
Outcast from society and enslaved, Kai (Reeves) encounters the 47 ronin, samurai seeking revenge for the death of their master. His killer is allied with a witch who controls supernatural forces threatening the land. Kai joins the ronin and they set out to get revenge and save the land. Based (loosely) on the Japanese historical incident from the 18th century, 47 Ronin was a $200 million 3D blockbuster that bombed at the box office and then immediately forgotten.
A curious historical-fantasy-action film that features dragons, ogre gladiator fights, samurai, and a shapeshifting witch, it is a much more enjoyable watch than critics initially judged. That said, this gigantic budget postmodern fantasy-action film has a lot of CGI so the action sequences (featuring samurai fighting against mythical entities and all-digital creatures) also falls flat. This disconnect makes it seem more like a theme park ride than an action film. While Reeves turns in a solid performance, when compared to the rest of his action film output this one falls somewhere on the low end of the scale.
10. Constantine (2005)
A rated-R adaptation of the comic book Hellblazer, Reeves plays John Constantine, a freelance demon hunter who has the ability to see demons in disguise. Learning he is dying of cancer (due to his constant smoking) he strikes a deal with Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) that he will selflessly exorcize demons from the afflicted for more time on earth. Constantine now finds himself caught between battling demonic forces and protecting a young psychic detective (played by Rachel Weisz) that is targeted to become the new host for Lucifer’s son, which will usher in hell on Earth.
With the sort of overwrought mythos that comic books tend to produce and uneven pacing, Constantine is not everyone’s type of action film. Coming out just before the superhero film renaissance, Constantine is a fine comic book adaptation. The action suffers from the same thing 47 Ronin does, mostly that Reeves is “fighting” against CGI monsters half the time. Well-integrated but detracting from the impact of an action sequence, Constantine is watchable – but leaning more on supernatural special effects than traditional physical action sequences.
9. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The final installment in the Matrix trilogy delivers an epic conclusion to the story, and the action sequences somehow got even larger than the previous two. The highway chase scene is a high-octane, long-form sequence that keeps the tension and stakes high throughout, while the rain-soaked final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith becomes a city-spanning brawl. With plenty of action (unfortunately much of it even more CGI than ever), The Matrix Revolutions is a fine conclusion to the series.
But perhaps because this was the concluding chapter (up to that point), there’s something lacking in this installment the first two had. The series was already convoluted but this last film really stops the action down to give even more exposition to explain what’s going on and why. Also, a fair amount of the plot focuses on side characters we were introduced to in the last film who aren’t particularly compelling. The third-best Matrix film, which is still pretty good.
8. Point Break (1991)
FBI agent Johnny Utah gets paid to surf when he’s assigned to go undercover to infiltrate the bank robbing gang the Ex-Presidents, named so for the masks they wear during said robberies. A riptide-roaring action crime thriller unfolds as Johnny gains the trust of gang leader Bohdi (Patrick Swayz) and falls in love with his ex-girlfriend Tyler (Lori Petti). But has Johnny gotten in too deep with these thrill-seeking criminals, and will he be able to pull the trigger when the time comes?
This classic action movie is a fan favorite, introducing Reeves into the world of action films. While firmly set in 1991 (check out the soundtrack and sartorial choices), the action sequences still hold up to day. The surfing and skydiving stunts are thrilling, and the intense gun fights ratchets up the drama (and influenced action films to come). Points off for being more subdued in its action than later Keanu outings in the genre, it still cannot be denied as a classic of the genre.