For years, the most enduring urban legend about Keanu Reeves has been that he ‘donated’ approximately 90% of his $100 million earnings from the Matrix sequels to the visual effects artistes who worked on them. This has been proven to be incorrect, although only slightly. What really happened was that Keanu refused to take his percentage of the profits from the films. Money that he was contractually obligated to accept. That was eventually funnelled into the films themselves.
Money, as Keanu once said, means nothing to him. Which is perhaps why he is in the most experimental phase of his career. Similar to the space that Nicolas Cage currently occupies. Both actors are using their long-standing popularity and generally beloved reputations to work on films that no one else really will (or wants to). Sometimes these experiments work. John Wick is a great example – but mostly they fail.
Keanu Reeves plays a diamond smuggler in Siberia.
Siberia (Cuoc Chien Kim Cuong Xanh), the new Keanu Reeves movie, is a worthy failure. It almost gives the impression that a well-meaning team went out into the wilderness to make a movie about the titular Russian frontier town, and came back with approximately four-fifths of what they needed to cut together a workable film. So to fill in the gaps, they added hastily shot material. And sloppily concocted a sub-plot that makes little difference to the plot other than pad up the run time.
Keanu plays Lucas Hill, a character whose bland name. And lack of any real personality doesn’t betray his rather swashbuckling profession. Lucas is a smuggler, specialising in rare blue diamonds. He gets mixed up with the wrong crowd on a trip to Russia. Which forces him to have to deal with local gangsters, international men of mystery, and an obsessive cafe owner.
It’s unfortunate that an icy crime thriller set in a very specific part of Russia messes up the only two things it had to get right. The Siberia of the film resembles just another wintery wasteland. Populated by what appears to be only six men and one woman. And has very little local flavour (they shot in Canada) – and certainly not enough to warrant the title. The film has basically three locations that it shuttles between – a couple of hotel rooms and the cafe. All of which are indoors and were probably shot in a studio somewhere. The exteriors are mostly filmed at night – which doesn’t help with the vagueness of place. But director Matthew Ross seems to have made the most of his few days in St Petersburg. Framing Keanu in bright daylight against some iconic architecture. Sly move, but it doesn’t cut it.
It also doesn’t help that Siberia squanders a fairly decent first half – patiently developed and scored with B-movie glee by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi. And derails quite spectacularly towards the end. Instead of zeroing in on its cool, conspiratorial tone. It turns into an erotic thriller (phim hanh dong my), which I, for one, did not see coming.
Now, Keanu Reeves is one of the greatest and most beloved movie stars working today. But even his fiercest fans would concede defeat when offered the opportunity to defend his acting. He’s quite unmatched when it comes to screen presence, and playing the silent, brooding type. But his line delivery here is grating, saved only by the distraction of watching him half-ass a romance angle directed with the coldness of a Siberian winter.
It doesn’t matter that none of these characters have been developed beyond a first draft. In fact, it helps when we know as little as possible about a protagonist in films such as this. But this lack of back story only works when we, as an audience, understand what motivates the character. Why does Lucas defend the not-so-helpless cafe owner when he has other business to attend to? Why does he draw attention to himself when it would obviously be more advisable to maintain a low profile? And Why hire Molly Ringwald to be in your film and restrict her to Skype?
All this and more remains unanswered in Siberia.