In the history of film adaptations of Shakespeare, certain performances have so captured the essence of a character that the actor and role are forever linked afterwards. There is Olivier’s Hamlet, Olivier’s Richard III, Welles’ Othello, and Keanu Reeves’ Don John.
Um, wait…did I say Keanu Reeves? How can I include the Maestro of the Monotone—the Duke of “Dude!” and the Wizard of “Whoa!”—in such company? As the villainous Don John in Kenneth Brannagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, does Reeves reach some heretofore unattained height of thespian mastery? Well, no. This is the same Reeves whose portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula elicited winces and guffaws from audiences nationwide—the same actor who, along with Andy McDowell, can make you feel embarrassed for another in a way not felt since your close friend drunkenly humiliated himself at that wedding/cocktail party/Bar Mitzvah with that floozy/Jell-O/small poodle. And, in fairness, this is the same Reeves whose gift for looking intense, befuddled and blank has led to superb performances in Parenthood, Speed and Matrix. Indeed, for the most part, Reeves’ most effective and enjoyable performances occur when he assumes one of the two archetypes over which he is the undisputed master—the “dude” (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Parenthood) and the “quiet, intense action guy” (Speed, Matrix).
Strangely enough, in Much Ado, Reeves’ performance is noteworthy not because he has been cast to his strengths but because he has been cast in a role that feeds upon his weaknesses. Don John, the melancholy, moping bastard brother of Don Pedro, is easily the most impotent of Shakespeare’s villains. As the play opens, Don Pedro returns from battle, having just defeated Don John’s rebel forces. Despite the uprising, Don John has not been slain in battle nor executed afterwards. Rather, Don Pedro has forgiven him and brought him along. Clearly, this bastard brother is no Edmund. As the play proceeds, Don John devises a plan to disrupt the happiness created by Don Pedro’s return, and my, what a flaccid, pathetic plan it is. Having been informed by his henchman, Borachio, that Don Pedro intends to woo fair Hero in Claudio’s name, Don John hatches a fiendish plot that causes discord…for one character…for all of 5 minutes. Clearly, this Machiavellian schemer is no Iago. Ultimately, when a second stratagem does prove somewhat effective, it is not Don John but Borachio who provides it. It is a sad villain who needs a henchman to concoct his mischief. As the knots are untangled and the comedy reaches a conclusion, Don John is allowed no measure of respect as “the villain.” He escapes only to be captured, and then, in a fitting last dismissal of poorly executed villainy, Don Pedro responds to word of his brother’s capture: “Think not on him till tomorrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike the pipers!” Eh, no need to worry about this guy. Let’s party! Woe to the villain not even worthy of an off-stage beheading.
Within the vestments of such a pallid villain, Reeves’ own shortcomings as an actor are completely concealed and even flattered. The result is casting and acting synergy fascinating to behold. No matter how wooden Reeves’ delivery (and there are some impressive two-by-fours) and no matter how strained his expression of emotion (Don John’s one moment of emoted happiness is pulp-free), the result seems appropriate. Don John’s character, so paltry a presence and impotent a villain, nonetheless can contain all things Keanu. It is a mutualistic relationship—a state of extreme apropos whereby a badly delivered line seems fitting for such a failure of a villain and the villain’s ineffectiveness demands a poor, sullen portrayal.
Much Ado About Nothing merits viewing for a number of reasons—most of the performances are superb, and Brannagh’s choice of a sun-drenched Tuscan backdrop is inspired. But as you enjoy the vigor and spirit of the film, please take a moment to appreciate the rare amalgam of poor acting and poor villainy that is Don Keanu. I mean, whoa.