Throughout the 1990s Keanu Reeves created a form of action stardom that no other actor has quite achieved before or since — one predicated less on testing the limits of his body than on highlighting its beauty. And 1999's The Matrix marked the entrancing culmination of all he had been experimenting with during that decade.
Twenty years and two sequels later, it is hard to imagine anyone else but Reeves as Neo, the counterculture hacker turned savior. But before he came onboard, directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski considered several others, including Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, and Will Smith (who reportedly turned down the role so he could do the widely derided Wild Wild West, one of the greatest mistakes of his career). These actors, at least at the time, hewed closer to a more traditional form of Hollywood machismo. But The Matrix is a film that operates on multiple levels: It's a cyberthriller of unbridled intimacy, a scalpel-sharp action flick, a curious testament to optimism, and a still-worthwhile study of technology's all-consuming power on our lives. It needs a lead who can operate on such levels as well.
As an action star, Reeves has repeatedly shown interest not just in the limits of the body and its raw strength, but also in its grace. He isn't like Tom Cruise, who pushes his body to ever-increasing extremes — leaping out of planes or onto the side of buildings with carefully calibrated aplomb. Nor does he possess the jokey charisma of a Will Smith. When we look at the most towering examples of Hollywood action stars — from the jaunty elegance of Errol Flynn, to the muscle-bound machismo of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all the way down the line to the less distinct, glossy statesmen of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe — Keanu Reeves remains an outlier.
For The Matrix, the Wachowskis coaxed a genuinely transcendent performance from Reeves, while also successfully synthesizing a host of inspirations (from cyberpunk literature to anime classics to various strains of philosophy detailing our notions of consciousness). The results profoundly rewrote the expectations of what an action star could be. Neo's mournful, curious gaze and joyful compulsion as he learns about the real world brought to the fore the idea that more soulful, willowy folks could carry a hidden lethality — a suggestion new to the American landscape, which often preferred its action stars' powers conscripted to immensely muscled bodies, with true emotion either nowhere to be found or wrapped in slickly delivered sarcasm. Reeves suggested that an action star should feel, at full tilt.
In the wake of Neo's slender poise, the notion of the "unlikely action star" became quite common. No longer did action films need to be anchored by chiseled, emotionally limited commandos like Stallone or martial arts experts with expressive charm like Wesley Snipes.