It’s enough to make Obi-Wan Kenobi's light sabre droop.

The Matrix is the first big science fiction hit of the year, and it has put back on

top of the box office charts.

Words: Bruno Lester/IPA

‘I DO KNOW THAT I'M THE CRITICS' WHIPPING BOY,‘ admits Keanu Reeves without any hint of feeling sorry for himself. Journalists have had their knives out for him ever since he showed a career death wish by refusing to capitalise on the box office success of Speed. Instead of doing Heat with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, he played Hamlet in an 800~seat Canadian theatre. Instead of picking up an $11 million paycheck for Speed 2, he toured with his band, Dogstar. When he did finally return to the movies, he chose stinkers like Feeling Minnesota, Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction.

But now, at the age of 34, Keanu Reeves finds himself back on top of the heap, thanks to flashy sci-fi thriller The Matrix. A monster hit in America, it has more than satisfied the special effects cravings of audiences awaiting Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and, in the process, has made Keanu the comeback king of 1999.

’Turning down Speed 2 was hard, career- wise and money-wise, but I'm glad I toured with the band instead,’ he insists. ‘I had no intention of giving up acting. It is my life's work. But, like many actors, I get involved in other activities because I need a life and because you never know where your next gig is coming from.‘

The Keanu we see today is much smarter and more self-critical than the airhead persona that stuck to him after Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Point Break. 'I can’t stand some of my performances,’ he says. ’I kind of stunk in Dracula and thought the second half of Bill And Ted sucked. I’m grateful my part in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues was trimmed. But if I thought about it too much, I’d never go in front of the camera again.’

In The Matrix, Keanu plays Thomas ’Neo' Anderson, a computer wiz who realises that humanity has become victimised by evil computers. The role required him to sign up for four months of hardcore physical training prior to filming; Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt all passed on the project because of this level of commitment.

’l was into doing Kung Fu for the movie. I like the fake fighting, like cowboys and indians,’ enthuses Keanu, who aggravated an old neck injury during training. ’As a result, I had a neck brace on for a lot of the time, and the doctors didn't allow me to kick. You learn how to take the hits and pull back, but you still get sore and tender. It was physically exhausting and I got

12 THEUST ‘:’ M 15'2":

'I can't stand some of my performances. I kind of stunk in Dracula.’

Keanu Reeves

plenty of bruises and aches, but thankfully I never broke anything.’

Directors Andy and Larry Wachowski (creators of the stylish modern noir, Bound) introduced the Asian cinematic technique of wire—fighting into their film. This entailed hooking the actors up to wires and manipulating them in much the same way a puppeteer does his marionettes. The wires are erased in the editing room by computers, and the result is that the cast run up the walls and flip through the air as bullets fly. ’For the first while, it’s a bit scary,’ Keanu remembers, ’but during the initial training, we were in a room with padded walls and floors to soften the impact. After four months hooked up on wires, I felt a little like Peter Pan.’

Which is rather fitting given that, off-screen, there’s more than a little of ’the boy who never grew up’ in Keanu Reeves. ’I like to read and daydream,’ he says, ’but I also like to ride horses and bikes, play bass guitar, baseball and ice hockey. That's just the way I am.’

There's something very contradictory in his nature. He might wear a designer suit for interviews, but he still sports hiking boots. Although he comes across as sweetly shy and polite, he obviously has a wilder side after two serious crashes, he lost his motorbike licence; he habitually wears black nail varnish; and despite his claims to be 'a real hornebody’, he’s effectively homeless, living instead in a series of hotels.

'l’ve been introverted and shy most of my life, and I still am to a certain extent,’ he says. ’But I wouldn’t describe myself as that today. I feel I have opened up.’

Enough to let us in on his much debated love life?

‘Oh, my,’ he starnmers. ’Arn | blushing? How can I say this nicely? It’s none of anyone's business. I’m sort of . . . Han Solo.’

The Matrix opens on Fri 11 Jun. See review, page 24.