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The art of the Keanu Reeves one-liner

When it comes to men of few words on the big screen, it's fair to say that Keanu Reeves might be this generation's Clint Eastwood.

Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted

We’ve all heard the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But in the case of our favourite action movie hero Keanu Reeves, the saying should be adjusted slightly to, “If you don’t have anything cool to say, don’t say anything at all.” Even then, Keanu uses his words sparingly, and over time has become the master of cinematic one-liners.

Honestly, when it comes to outrageous action sequences topped off by a simple quick-witted quip, does anyone do it better? His calm demeanour and unparalleled on-screen stunts are the perfect foundation for a good one-liner, and over the course of his expansive filmography, he’s been blessed with so many. Or rather, blessed us.

And with John Wick 4 providing more spectacular witticisms, it’s time to take a deep dive into what makes the one-liners from Keanu Reeves movies so effective. So, we’ve gone into the Reeves archives and pulled some of our favourite zingers from the man himself, dissecting them with all the enthusiasm of an overzealous Film Studies teacher. Let’s get to it.

Keanu Reeves in Speed

“It was cans!” (Speed, 1994)

There are people in the world who think very deeply about Speed, and I consider myself one of them. Lives were changed by Speed, and the action movie genre suddenly had to hit a bar it wasn’t even aware Speed had raised. And though the spectacular vehicular stunts and creeping tension are undeniable elements of what makes Speed so great, it’s this particular line that remains the most exhilarating memory.

Picture this: a bus, which cannot go under 50mph due to a bomb attached to the underside, is hurtling through the streets of Los Angeles, unstoppable. As the bus launches forward, a woman with a pram steps onto the road. The bus is the rock, the pram is the hard place. Sandra Bullock looks on in sheer terror as the bus speeds ahead.

Just when you think it won’t happen, the bus ploughs into the pram and sends it flying. Jaws hit the ground. Hearts stop. But when the pram hits the ground, a collection of empty cans flutter about the street. As Keanu Reeves’ Jack tries to calm Sandra Bullock’s Annie down, he throws out the classic, “It was cans!” line again and again.

There’s a lot to unpack with this one, and it’s impossible to tell whether it’s his almost maniacal smile that he accompanies the line with, or the slight English accent on the word “cans” that makes this line so damn great. Quotability: 8/10.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix

“I know Kung-Fu.” (The Matrix, 1999)

It’s probably a fair assumption to say that The Matrix catapulted Reeves onto his action throne. The iconography of the science fiction movie has permeated culture for the decades following its release, to the point where you can’t help but reference the movie in your head whenever you see someone walking around in a leather duster jacket. 

But quite frankly, of all the very memorable lines in this movie, “I know Kung-Fu” takes the crown. Why? Because it’s so simple. So effective. And this undoubtedly comes from Reeves’ calm disbelief when he utters the words. From here on in, we know we’re in for a ride. And for the dialogue to be then punctuated by one of the most beloved training sequences in all of cinema, how can we deny the longevity of this line? Quotability: 7/10.

Keanu Reeves in Point Break

“I am an FBI agent!” (Point Break, 1991)

This might be the one. The most Keanu Reeves-y piece of dialogue there is. It’s also probably the most well-known Reeves line and with good reason. Point Break, the favourite film of dudebros everywhere, was the surfs-up film of the decade and brought us a young and frenzied Keanu performance, but also a memorable instalment in the Swayze-verse.

Another excellent example of delivery taking precedence, this line is solely remembered for the way Keanu projects the words. The artful beats between each syllable, each letter, is a reminder that Keanu can see a fairly simple piece of dialogue and work it until it’s no longer just words — it’s a cultural staple. Quotability: 9/10.

Keanu Reeves in Parenthood

“Can I speak frankly, no holds barred?” (Parenthood, 1989)

Back in the era of floppy-haired, goofy-smiled Keanu, he appeared in the comedy movie Parenthood. And though he was squeezed into the film that contained the likes of Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Dianne Wiest, it’s Reeves himself that brings some of the best laughs. 

This scene, in which he has a heart-to-heart with Dianne Wiest after giving some advice to her morose young son, is a masterclass in comedic delivery. But the exchange opens with Keany sauntering in, heavy-minded, and asking her, “Can I speak frankly, no holds barred?” It’s a beautiful piece of wording, amplified by the fact that Keanu’s dopey Tod says it with such sincerity and wisdom. The rest of the conversation whips ahead with more of Keanu’s perfectly delivered quips and bizarre physical gestures, but it’s this opening line that gets us the most. Quotability: 10/10.

Keanu Reeves in John Wick 4

“But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back!” (John Wick, 2014)

Given how much the John Wick movies have grown into their own outrageous trope across the years, it’s a tricky task to try and pick out one of the many cutting and gratifying one-liners that Keanu utters across the series. But this one is the most apt, since it resembles everything the character represents and everything audiences have grown to love about the John Wick legacy.

Most notably, though, this line acts as a slight shift in the usual manner of the ‘Reeves remark’. It’s a yell, and acts as a guttural response to John Wick experiencing his own anger and frustration finally spilling out. It’s a reminder that he is a formidable foe, an unparalleled killer, and you’ve just pissed him off. Quotability: 7/10.

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So, what makes a good Keanu Reeves one-liner? Is it the pithy playfulness that he manages to perfectly articulate each time? Is it the crafting of the snappy words themselves? Or is it simply an underlying magic in Keanu himself, making him a wordsmith who is able to find meaning in the simplest of terms and put them out into the world for all to appreciate? Well, we believe that it’s all of the above. A beautiful combination that only Keanu himself could accomplish.

And yes, others have earned their place in the collective of few-worded men. Clint Eastwood has made a career of exchanging narrow-eyed stares and uttering a few sacred phrases, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early career certainly didn’t involve a lot of lengthy monologues. And yet, it’s Keanu Reeves who stands so high as the bon mot master.

The early lines were there on account of being in the script, and they are there now because, over time, we have come to know Keanu as the best man for the job when it comes to taking short, often simple dialogue and turning it into something great. Keanu no longer says the lines because they are there — they are there because of the way Keanu says them.

For more action-packed fun, check out our guide on Mission Impossible 7, our John Wick 4 review, as well as the best spy movies and best thriller movies. Don’t forget to check out all the new movies coming out this year, too.