The Keanu Reeves we all know and love, the super-agile, sharply dressed, rather taciturn action hero currently death-dealing his way through John Wick Chapter 3, was born 25 years ago, in the summer movie season of 1994 (yes that’s right…25 years ago!).
Until that point, Reeves had been a pin-up presence in arthouse treasures like River’s Edge and Permanent Record whose stock had risen sharply when he and Alex Winter had their first Excellent Adventure in 1988. After that, it soon became impossible to shake off his image as a loveable perma-stoned surf-jockey, never more than five seconds away from a ‘Woah, duuude.’
Attempts at breaking away from this unwanted mould and tackle more highbrow fare like Little Buddha often led to snide critical derision and more than a few titters, especially at his ‘English’ accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula – ‘I know whhair the bahstud sleeps, in Carfax Abbehh.’
Point Break in 1991 had given Reeves a chance to try his action shoes on for size and it had proved a snug fit. Stephen Baldwin with his innate genius for taking his career one step forward and twelve steps back, had recently passed on a new film about a speeding bus with a bomb on board. The first-time director, Die Hard and Basic Instinct DP Jan De Bont remembered Reeves’s gnarly Johnny Utah shtick and cast him instead.
Speed wasn’t supposed to be the big action flick of the year. That was Fox’s other big dog, James Cameron’s True Lies with its eye-watering budget and Arnold Schwarzenegger desperate to make up for the previous year’s Last Action Hero debacle – even going as far as trying to pronounce the name ‘Harry Ranquist’ without a stunt double.
True Lies was a hit, but not the earth-shattering behemoth that had been hoped for ($146m return on a $114m budget). Speed, which opened a month before True Lies, was lean, stripped-back and relentless, much like Reeves with his buzz-cut hair and gym-honed physique.
With his no-nonsense, no-puns approach and his genuine care and concern for the passengers (especially Sandra Bullock and to a lesser extent, Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Reeves became the template for the new, younger-model 1990s action hero, and left Arnie looking vulnerably anachronistic.
Reeves and Bullock became superstars off the back of Speed’s success. A similar alchemy took place in The Mask, when Cameron Diaz walked into a bank and walked out a movie star, making the most memorable movie entrance since Ursula Andress strolled out of the sea in Dr. No.
That Diaz made any impression at all speaks volumes about her extraordinary charisma, given that she was making her debut against the most dazzling special effect of 1994 – Jim Carrey in the middle of his miraculous annus mirabilis. The Mask was one of three $100m hits for Carrey that year (the others being Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber)
The Mask was the summer’s big comedy hit, and his pop-eyed green-faced living, breathing cartoon character became one of the great comedy icons of the 1990s. It was many years later that people finally stopped shouting ‘Ssssmokin’!’ for no reason whatsoever, to the relief of just about everyone.
What comes up must come down, and while these new stars were being forged, Summer ’94 saw the floor drop from beneath the feet of several big hitters. Julia Roberts took a lot of flak for the failure of I Love Trouble, a tiresome laughless and doomed attempt to make a His Girl Friday for the ‘90s, but surely the culprit was the knucklehead responsible for casting Nick Nolte as her love interest. (Putting it politely, they didn’t get on.)
The most perplexing question of the summer was ‘What the hell was Rob Reiner thinking?!’ Up until this point, Reiner was responsible for a golden, unbroken sequence of classic movies across several genres. This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men. How on earth could the same man have directed North?
Several films of Summer ’94 divided critical opinion, but there was a refreshing singularity in the consensus that in North, Rob Reiner had created a uniquely, singularly awful movie experience. A comedy without a solitary amusing moment, dipped in saccharine and schmaltz for a lingering, deeply unpleasant aftertaste.
The Shadow, a 1930s comic-book caper based on the radio show that had inspired Batman looked like it might take wing, but foundered. Comic fans were much better served by The Crow, whose success spawned several sequels. Sadly, it proved to be both a triumph and an epitaph for Brandon Lee who was accidentally killed on set.
Studios kept their fingers crossed for a few other potential break out hits but to no avail. In Blown Away, Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones’s competition to lay claim to Hollywood’s worst ever Irish accent was overshadowed by the sudden appearance of the least convincing pint of Guinness in cinema history.
Renaissance Man with Danny DeVito and a young Mark Wahlberg tried to be Dead Poets Society on an army base but nobody cared. Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland took the Coogan’s Bluff routine out for a canter in The Cowboy Way to no good effect. Beverly Hills Cop III was a film out of its time, its box office chances not helped by the fact that it seemed to be based on the script for a discarded Under Siege sequel – ‘This time, erm, he’s trapped in an amusement park…’
Romantic comedies were a little thin on the ground in the US that summer; we in the UK had Four Weddings & a Funeral filling the cinemas for most of the season, while Wet Wet Wet’s theme song slowly drove us all insane with its unavoidable ubiquity. However, It Could Happen To You with Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage was a mildly engaging bit of heartwarmth about a cop giving a waitress a $2m tip.
The biggest box office disappointment of the summer was Lawrence Kasdan’s epic, 3 hour-plus Wyatt Earp, which officially marked the end of Kevin Costner’s reign as a box office champion. Long and earnest, it was profoundly unlucky to have been beaten to the punch six months earlier by the immensely entertaining Earp-pic Tombstone, perhaps the most quotable western of the past 30 years.
Time has been quite kind to Costner’s version. It makes for a rewarding Sunday afternoon’s viewing and at the very least, it was a big studio film made for adults, which was no bad thing. In fact, the rather more discerning mature cinemagoer was relatively well treated in Summer ’94. One of the biggest hits of the year was Harrison Ford’s second (and last) Jack Ryan movie Clear and Present Danger, a complex, satisfying delve into shady CIA goings-on in South America based on the Tom Clancy novel. (“Sorry Mr. President. I don’t dance.” Love that bit!)
Another popular bestseller was brought to the screen with The Client, one of the best of the John Grisham films that seemed to be released at the rate of one a month in the mid nineties. Susan Sarandon was especially good here, as was Tommy Lee Jones, mercifully using his own accent.
Richard Donner’s Maverick, with Mel Gibson teaming up with Jodie Foster, showing off her considerable comic talents for the first time in years, was an impressive and fun ‘saddles n’ spurs’ spin on The Sting, taken several notches higher than it ought to have been by a wonderful William Goldman script.
Then there was Wolf, the strangest studio film of the summer. Appropriately a weird hybrid – a werewolf movie set in the high-end world of the Manhattan book publishing industry (!) Talent-stacked like no other film of Summer ’94 (Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mike Nichols and boasting a beautiful Ennio Morricone score), Wolf split critics and audiences alike but has probably gained the most over 25 years of reappraisal than anything else released that summer.
By contrast, the complete opposite can be said about The Flintstones, which ended up becoming the fourth biggest hit of the summer. Everyone over the age of eight hated it in 1994, which remains the case today. However, compared to the prequel, Viva Rock Vegas (starring Stephen Baldwin), it felt like a subtle Steinbeckian masterpiece about suburban alienation as seen through the allegorical prism of a prehistoric milieu. With lots of puns.
Small kids weren’t especially well served twenty five summers ago. Along with The Flintstones, they had to put up with a screeching update of The Little Rascals, as well as the slow torture that was Baby’s Day Out. Perhaps it was because there was a big cat out there that scared away all the competition. Disney’s The Lion King had started out as a brave first attempt to make an animated feature based on an original story and a brave attempt to ditch their traditional Christmas safety zone and release a summer movie.
It ended the year as a cultural phenomenon, the zenith of Disney’s new Golden Age and a money cloud that has been raining cash directly into The Mouse’s trouser pockets ever since. (We’ll have to see if Jon Favreau’s CGI version can replicate that success this weekend.)
So Simba was the box office champion in Summer ’94? You’d think so, but in a freakish twist of fate that practically nobody saw coming, a kind-hearted catchphrase-spouting simpleton from Alabama who never worked out that chocolate boxes come with an illustrated contents guide ran home with the gold. And kept on running.
Forrest Gump was Tom Hanks’s first film since collecting his Oscar for Philadelphia. With Robert Zemeckis rumoured to be playing CGI tricks with historical footage, this was initially predicted to be an up-to-date twist on Woody Allen’s Zelig, with all the limited box office potential implied therein. ‘This could be the summer sleeper,’ said Premiere at the time, hedging their bets by ranking it 11th in their summer movie preview.
Hoovering up the baby-boomer crowd, who got to revisit and wallow in the history of their lives, the film went from a hit to a smash to a sensation, eventually becoming a cultural touchstone via the rare expedient of managing to upset political camps on the left and the right. It swept the board at the Academy Awards and gave Hanks his second Oscar in as many years.
One other film merits mention. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers performed well that summer, pulling in over $50m. We didn’t get to see it in the UK until the following year following a great deal of tabloid censorship-based brouhaha that was very fashionable at the time.
I mention it because the script (or rather the story) was written by one Quentin Tarantino, whose second film as director would be released in the US that October. Speed may have taken the action film to a new level, and The Lion King may have raised the bar for animated movies. Forrest Gump may have won the Oscar but Pulp Fiction was the game-changer that struck Hollywood in 1994 and the seismic effect of its arrival still reverberates a quarter of a century later.