NEW YORK • Keanu Reeves, now pushing 52, is a hot commodity again. Yes, 2017 just got that much stranger.
John Wick: Chapter 2, the latest vehicle for the 1990s heart-throb, garnered an estimated US$30 million (S$42.5 million) in North American ticket sales in its first weekend. That is more than double the amount raked in by the first film and the fourth best debut of the year.
Reeves, one of the most volatile assets in Hollywood, is not known as the best of actors and has certainly had some stinkers over the years. For every Matrix (1999), there is a Johnny Mnemonic (1995), for every Speed (1994), a Sweet November (2001). In 2013, he headlined 47 Ronin, an opulent martial arts spectacle that flopped about as hard as a movie can.
In short, he is a genuine movie star, but a streaky one. Of his major films, the correlation between boxoffice revenue and critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews, is an anaemic 0.5. Which is to say, some of his most lucrative movies are also some of his most panned projects.
However, he finally appears to have found his groove. The two John Wick films are among the most-praised pieces of his career. To be sure, there is not much to these movies: The special effects are minimal and the plot spartan: a slighted thug kills someone's dog and steals his car... the wrong someone, it turns out.
The action, however, is constant. The cinematography is sharp and the stunts are sublime.
If the Avengers movies are the action film equivalent of a poetry slam, the Wick movies are haiku. They are everything a would-be blockbuster like 47 Ronin is not. Most importantly, they were not that expensive to make - the Hollywood equivalent of a value stock.
Lions Gate Entertainment picked up distribution rights for the first Wick film just 11 weeks before its debut in 2014. With a slight marketing nudge, it became a very profitable asset, garnering a respectable US$44 million in North American theatres before making a particularly strong run on digital streaming platforms.
"You think, 'What's the big franchise that comes after Hunger Games and Divergent?' Guess what, it's John Wick," said comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
"It's a profit-making machine and a movie studio's dream."
Lions Gate CEO Jon Feltheimer said the Wick films landed in a financial sweet spot for his studio and Hollywood at-large.
On a recent conference call with analysts, he said the sequel illustrated "the sustainability of a film model that allows us to create breakout hits without swinging for the fences".
If stripped down, stylised fare is the bullseye of the movie industry, Reeves is the movie star of the moment. He is far from his prime, so he does not require a Dwayne "Rock" Johnson-sized pay cheque.
And he is still a household name. The best parts of his instrument are on full display in Wick: a simmering stoicism and one-liners wooden enough to be both dark and funny.
"It's a man of few words kicking a** and taking names - almost like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator," Dergarabedian said.
"I can't think of another star that can pull this off the way Keanu Reeves does."