Throughout history, mankind has gone to war over pretty much everything imaginable — religion, politics, natural resources — but despite all our differences, there’s one indisputable fact that every human on planet Earth agrees upon, regardless of race, gender, or creed: Keanu Reeves is awesome.
The incredibly cool and charitable star is a nice and non-problematic guy who goes out of his way to help his fellow man. Plus, he’s a legitimately good actor, giving powerful performances in films like The Matrix, John Wick, and My Own Private Idaho (we even stan The Bad Batch and Constantine real hard). Sure, once upon a time, people made fun of his unique on-screen charisma, but in recent years, audiences have finally come to see the light, and the light is excellent.
In short, the dude is the very definition of "lovable"… so why was he thrown into movie jail for 11 years? According to Reeves, 20th Century Fox blacklisted him for over a decade, refusing to give the coolest guy in show business a single role until The Day the Earth Stood Still. Why did Hollywood executives toss Reeves behind allegorical bars? Well, stop learning kung fu, make sure your puppy hasn’t been murdered, and then let’s jump into our time-traveling phone booth as we look at why Keanu Reeves was put in "movie jail" after turning down a role.
Keanu was killing it in his early career
Before we can talk about why Keanu Reeves was tossed into movie jail, first we’ve got to uncover the events leading to his imprisonment. And for that, we’ve got to start at the beginning of his career. After making his way to Hollywood, Reeves’ first feature film was Youngblood, a 1986 sports drama starring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. And while nobody — probably not even Keanu Reeves — remembers this movie, it actually outgrossed classics like Labyrinth, Blue Velvet, and Big Trouble in Little China.
After that largely forgettable film, Reeves got everyone’s attention with River’s Edge, a controversial movie about apathetic teens and the naked corpse of a murdered girl. Soon, Reeves was showing up in way bigger films, like Dangerous Liaisons, which starred the likes of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, and Michelle Pfieffer. Then, of course, he was cast as one of his most iconic characters: the laid-back, time-traveling wannabe rock star, Theodore Logan of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
From there, he played a slacker in the Steve Martin comedy Parenthood, tried to catch some waves and bust a few bank robbers in Point Break, and played a sex worker in the avant garde My Own Private Idaho. Granted, Reeves made a couple of missteps early in his career, and he proved to the world he’s incapable of doing an English accent with back-to-back performances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing. But by this point, Reeves’ career was speeding forward, and the actor was about to make a massive jump from up-and-comer to blockbuster king.
Audiences had the need for Speed
The year 1994 was pretty phenomenal for film, with classics like Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lion King, and Forrest Gump. Plus, adrenaline-junkies got their fix with a whole slate of awesome action flicks like The Crow, True Lies, Leon: The Professional, and of course, the movie that made Keanu Reeves a bona fide star: Speed.
Directed by Jan De Bont, Speed follows Officer Jack Traven (Reeves), who finds himself up against a psychopathic terrorist (Dennis Hopper) who’s rigged a bus to explode if it drops below 50 mph. Along with courageous commuter Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), Traven has to defuse the bomb, catch the bad guy, and save the day.
Really, Speed is everything you could possibly want from an action movie. Reeves and Bullock had a whole lot of chemistry, the leading man did most of his own stunts, and yeah, they really jumped that bus. As a result, the movie impressed critics, turned Reeves and Bullock into A-listers, and earned $350 million against a $38 million budget. Unfortunately, there’s always a dark side to success, and Speed‘s box office victory was about to send Keanu Reeves to the cinematic slammer.
The studios want a sequel
Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a super popular movie, and it makes a whole lot of cash. What do you do? Why, you make a sequel, of course. And no joke, the very week the money started pouring in from Speed, Fox gave the go-ahead for a part two. So director Jan De Bont started reading new scripts and searching for possible scenarios and crazy locations.
Inspired by a recurring nightmare where a cruise ship crashed into an island, De Bont decided to set his sequel at sea. The movie would start off with Jack Traven and Annie Porter as a married couple, and the two would go on a tropical cruise that ended with big-time terrorism, courtesy of a vengeful hacker who was fired by the cruise line.
Of course, if you’re going to make a Speed sequel, you’ve got to bring back your original stars. Bullock signed the dotted line after Fox promised to finance Hope Floats, a romantic drama directed by Forest Whitaker in which Bullock plays a spurned housewife trying to take charge of her life. However, if you turn on Speed 2: Cruise Control, Keanu Reeves is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s Jason Patric playing some cop named Alex Shaw, and he’s missing that certain je ne sais quoi, that Keanu Reevesness. So what’s up with the switcheroo? Why did Reeves say no to Speed 2? Well, the answer involves screenplays, Satan, and Shakespeare.
He needed a break from action movies
Obviously, Fox wasn’t happy when their star abandoned ship, and according to Reeves, the movie studio started spreading "propaganda" against him, saying he was off touring with his rock band, Dogstar, instead of making movies. But according to Reeves, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There were several reasons he didn’t want to square off against Willem Dafoe’s bug-eyed terrorist, but as he explained to The Toronto Star, playing the bass wasn’t one of them.
So what did prevent Reeves from signing onto the sequel? Well, first off, he was actioned out. Reeves had just finished playing in Chain Reaction, a thriller starring Morgan Freeman and Rachel Weisz. The movie has Reeves starring as a scientist who invents a new power source, only to find himself framed for murder and on the run when the FBI comes calling. Critics weren’t crazy about the action flick, and neither was Reeves for that matter. He described the process of making the movie as "really unsatisfying," saying that he had to "do a lot of running and action, and it was disappointing."
Obviously, this was before Reeves switched into John Wick-action man mode (or maybe he only likes throwing his energy into action movies that are actually good). Either way, the experience left him exhausted and unwilling to make Speed 2 so soon after outrunning a hydrogen explosion. As his manager told Entertainment Weekly, "He didn’t want to do two action movies back-to-back." On top of all that, the star had broken his ankle in a motorcycle accident, so doing all sorts of aquatic stunts for Cruise Control probably didn’t sound like much fun.
To be or not to be… in a Shakespeare play
If an actor wants to truly test his mettle and take his place in the pantheon of greats, then he must don a pair of tights and play the melancholy prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Shakespeare’s magnum opus has attracted the likes of Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellan, Ralph Fiennes… and Keanu Reeves.
It was 1995, and Reeves wanted to deliver some iambic pentameter. Only instead of heading to London or Broadway, he flew up to Winnipeg and put on Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Sure, Fox wanted him to film a Caribbean adventure film, but instead, Reeves wanted to bring the Bard to the great white north.
Needless to say, the Fox execs were furious, but the citizens of Winnipeg were thrilled. The show immediately sold out, fans showed up from places like Japan and Argentina, and people had such a bad case of Keanu Fever that the town set up a hot line so people could report sightings of the star.
As for his actual performance, well, critics weren’t impressed with his monologuing abilities, especially when he delivered the "to be or not to be" speech. The critics labeled his line-readings as "wooden" and "boring," but that all changed when it was time to get physical. Whenever Reeves was doing comedy, pretending to be mad, or getting into sword fights, that’s when the actor came to life and was truly "magnetic."
Of course, whenever Reeves said a line like "so excellent a king," Bill & Ted fans couldn’t help but chuckle. But as for the folks back at 20th Century Fox, well, they weren’t laughing at all.
The devil’s in the details
Before casting Jason Patric as the lead in Speed 2, Fox offered Keanu Reeves a hefty paycheck of $11 million to reprise the role of Jack Traven. But hey, Reeves was tired of action films, and he was busy doing Shakespeare in the snow. Plus, he had his eye on a demonic new projects.
Reeves was interested in playing the lead role in the satanic legal thriller The Devil’s Advocate. Starring Al Pacino and Charlize Theron, the movie would find Reeves as a hotshot lawyer from Florida (complete with a Southern accent) who’s invited to join a successful Manhattan law firm. When he shows up in the Big Apple, he meets his new boss, a devilish wheeler and dealer named John Milton (Pacino) who seduces our hero into a life of sin, both in and out of the courtroom.
The Devil’s Advocate was filming at the same time as Speed 2: Cruise Control, but in Reeves’ mind, it was a pretty simple choice between the two. He could act across from Al Pacino and scream at Satan in a penthouse suite, or he could get soaking wet doing aquatic stunts all day long. Obviously, the option was easy. Better to rule in Hell than swim in Speed 2.
Reeves didn’t like the script
Keanu Reeves had a whole list of reasons why he didn’t want to star in Speed 2. He needed a break from action movies. He was busy holding skulls and drinking poisoned wine in Winnipeg. And he wanted to go toe-to-toe with one of the greatest (and loudest) actors in Hollywood history. But at the end of the day, there’s one reason above all that kept Reeves away from Cruise Control: he thought the script for Speed 2 absolutely sucked.
In 2015, Reeves went on Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote an upcoming film, and the talk show host started asking questions about why Reeves wasn’t on the cruise ship with poor Sandra Bullock. Reeves decided to get real honest, answering, "It was just a situation in life where I got the script, and I read the script, and I was like ‘ugggggh!’" After mulling it over for a bit, he eventually decided that, yeah, he was going to pass on this one, telling director Jan De Bont and company, "I love you guys, but I just can’t do it."
Of course, trash-talking Speed 2 wasn’t new for Reeves. Even back in 1997, he was telling The Toronto Star that "the script wasn’t great." So Reeves bowed out and let the Speed sequel sail on by. As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one who thought Cruise Control was a really bad idea.
Speed 2 sank at the box office
Speed 2 is the worst thing that’s happened to cruise ships since the Titanic plowed into that iceberg. When the movie earned a paltry $164.5 million worldwide at the box office, Fox executives had to be freaking out. After all, they’d expected the movie to be a hit like the original, so they gave director Jan De Bont a budget of $100 million — that’s $70 million more than the first film. However, De Bont’s action flick featured explosions, shotgun blasts, and a boat plowing into an island town. This movie was anything but cheap.
As a result, the film went over budget, although how much is up for debate. According to Den of Geek, some say it was just an extra $10 million, while others say the final total was a whopping $165 million. The studio poured so much cash into this high-octane sequel, but nobody wanted a part two without their lovable leading man. In other words, Speed 2: Cruise Control had a whole lot in common with Dennis Hopper’s explosive device from the first film — they were both bombs. A $164.5 million payday versus a $165 million budget isn’t what you want to see when you’re running a movie studio.
Plus, the critics were swimming around this wreck like a school of sharks, ready to tear it to pieces. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a shockingly low approval rating of just 4 percent. With Speed 2 sinking in theaters, it was crystal clear that Keanu Reeves made a wise decision by staying far away from the sequel… but he wouldn’t escape the disaster unscathed.
Reeves was tossed into movie jail
In the wake of Speed 2, 20th Century Fox allegedly decided it was time to blacklist Keanu Reeves. Speaking with GQ in 2019, the actor claimed that the company tossed him into "movie jail," banning him from starring in any of their movies as retribution for turning down Cruise Control. Reeves spent 11 years on Fox’s bad side, and during that time, the studio released some pretty high profile films like X-Men, The Phantom Menace, and Minority Report. It’s interesting to wonder how different Reeves’ career might look if the studio had considered him for one of those projects.
Sadly, Fox didn’t shine its iconic spotlights his way until 2008, when Reeves played an environmentally-conscious alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, while he’s not in the cinematic slammer anymore, Reeves just doesn’t do that many studio films these days. The last time he worked with one of the big companies for a live action, leading man role was 47 Ronin with Universal Pictures, and since then, he’s taken to showing up in smaller fare like The Bad Batch and The Neon Demon. Even the John Wick movies are relatively low-budget affairs distributed by Lionsgate.
Of course, if the actor spent over a decade getting shunned by one of Hollywood’s biggest movie studios, did it hurt his career at all? While we’ll never know what other movies he might’ve been offered, the short answer is pretty simple: nope.
Keanu Reeves did just fine behind bars
Just because Fox didn’t want to work with Keanu Reeves, that didn’t mean every other studio in Hollywood was going to turn him away. After all, he was a hot young actor with a whole lot of promise, and in 1999, Reeves teamed up with Warner Bros. for a weird little sci-fi flick called The Matrix. With its epic gun battles, leathery fashion, and philosophical statements, the movie landed with the impact of a well-placed kung fu punch, and everybody started paying serious attention to the man they called Neo. The movie revolutionized science fiction, inspired pop culture moments that live on to this day, and gave birth to two (less impressive) sequels. In other words, Keanu Reeves was doing just fine without Fox.
And sure, there was a period post-Matrix where Reeves was wandering in the wilderness, making subpar films like The Watcher, The Lake House, and Street Kings. But the man was always making interesting choices, with quirky choices like Constantine and A Scanner Darkly. However, the Keanu Reeves renaissance really started when a group of Russian gangsters broke into his home, killed his puppy, and stole his car. John Wick was a sleeper hit that spawned a franchise full of incredible fight choreography, amazing worldbuilding, and some of Keanu Reeves’ greatest moments as an actor. Today, he’s bigger than he’s ever been, popping up in Toy Story 4, making hilarious cameos (see Always Be My Maybe), showing up at conventions to tell us we’re breathtaking, and receiving all sorts of adoration on the internet.
In other words, Keanu Reeves served his time in movie jail, and he came out the other side smiling.