Goodbye, Airhead

KEANU REEVES IS WELL AWARE that in most people's minds he'll always be Ted. Dumb, happy Ted of the excellent adventures, airhead supremo. ""It hung a label on me,'' he acknowledges, ""and I hung it on myself, to a certain extent.'' He claims it doesn't bother him. Not this morning, anyway, in his manager's office in L.A., where he seems -- given his reputation as a monosyllabic, recalcitrant interview -- remarkably affable and undefensive. When he gets excited he doubles over and waves his arms, wandlike, communing with the inside of his head. He knows that when he uses a phrase like ""it's choice,'' or peppers his conversation with ""cools,'' he'll be Tedified. ""It's easy to do. It makes good copy.''

When your greatest fame comes from playing a joke -- never mind that you played it well -- it's hard to get people to take you seriously. The very idea that someone named Keanu was trying to play Shakespeare in ""Much Ado About Nothing'' made some critics giggle. When it was announced that Bernardo Bertolucci had cast him in ""Little Buddha'' -- as the Buddha himself -- you could hear the wisecracks warming up. Now, in the slam-bang thriller ""Speed,'' Reeves has reincarnated himself as an LAPD SWAT-team cop -- a beefed-up action hero with close-cropped hair and an air of fierce resolve. It's the first role in which he casts his boyhood behind him.

To see ""Speed'' and ""Little Buddha'' back to back is downright weird. Like many actors these days, Reeves transforms his body like Silly Putty. In the Bertolucci, he has the rail-thin body of an ascetic. His diet? ""Not eating.'' In the other he shows off the results of six-day-a-week iron pumping. His choice: ""I wanted to have cop arms -- big, beefy.'' In neither role is there a trace of Ted. What is unmistakably Keanu is that breathy earnestness when he plays intense. His voice lacks a bottom; it may be why people can't get over the surfer-dude thing.

Right now Reeves seems to be the busiest actor of his generation. He's worked with some of the best directors around: Stephen Frears (""Dangerous Liaisons''), Francis Ford Coppola (""Dracula''), Gus Van Sant (""My Own Private Idaho''). He's just finished shooting ""Johnny Mnemonic'' with artist turned director Robert Longo, and he's about to work with Alfonso (""Like Water for Chocolate'') Arau playing a World War II soldier in a romance, ""A Walk in the Clouds.'' Reeves doesn't always seem at home in period costumes, but when he has played close to his own experience, in ""River's Edge'' or ""Permanent Record,'' he has given powerful, perfect-pitch renditions of wounded teenagers. Take a look at his hilarious, touching body language in the kitchen scene with Dianne Wiest in ""Parenthood'' or his slapstick teamwork with William Hurt in ""I Love You to Death.'' He's got an uncanny knack for physical comedy. He'll admit he was not at his best in ""Dracula.'' ""I didn't give a performance.'' But then a lot of good actors were not at their best in that one.

What made Bertolucci think of him to play Prince Siddhartha? ""I asked him that. He said it was my innocence.'' Reeves shifts into a perfect Italian mimicry: "" "You are so naive. It's inCREDible. You have a MONUMENTAL innocence'.'' Bertolucci confirms this: ""When I met him, he showed me something very enigmatic. I discovered only recently this "dude' thing. I was not considering this prejudice, especially in the United States, against Keanu Reeves.'' The actor always stayed in character, except ""if there was any really good French Bordeaux around; then he was very keen.''

It was also the hint of the Asian -- those dark almond eyes -- that caught Bertolucci's attention. Reeves was born in Beirut to a Chinese-Hawaiian father and an English mother. He grew up in Toronto with his mother, where he latched on to acting. A committed Stanislavskian, he's dead serious about his acting. And about Shakespeare. He's spent two summers studying with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and breaks into long quotes from the Bard when you least expect it. Next January he'll play Hamlet in Winnipeg.

At the moment, he lives wherever he acts. He has neither a car nor a proper home. He comes to the interview on his motorcycle, wearing a snappy gray suit and T shirt and a helmet. There is no relationship in his life. He doesn't even want to think about where his career is going. ""I have no idea. I certainly don't want to be an action hero. I don't even want a crystal ball.''

At 29, he seems more grown- up and at ease with himself than the last time I saw him. A lot more. It was onstage at the 1991 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The ""My Own Private Idaho'' cast, including the late River Phoenix, was fielding questions from the audience, and Reeves, not happy, and perhaps not entirely sober, looked like he'd rather get back to partying. He leaned back in his chair, loudly cleared his throat and spat on the stage. When I reminded him of the moment he didn't remember, but broke out in a long amazed laugh. ""Ah, youth,'' he intoned, with a Shakespearean lilt. ""Ya gotta love it!''


IT'S NOT EASY PRODUCING MINDLESS fun. Look at ""The Flintstones.'' Thirty-three writers slaved to get the mindless part right, but where was the fun? (Yes, I know how big it opened; for that it deserves a place in the documentary ""That's Marketing, Part I.'') For truly ingenious mindless fun, a summer popcorn movie deluxe, take Speed. This is real escapism, a preposterously exciting thriller that takes itself seriously enough to produce gasps of tension and lightly enough so you giggle while grabbing the armrest.

Here's the deal: a ransom-demanding psycho (Dennis Hopper) has planted a bomb on an L.A. bus. The bomb will explode if the bus falls below 50 mph. Can LAPD cop Jack Traven (buffed-up Keanu Reeves) save the day? A simple premise, but first-time director Jan De Bont and screenwriter Graham Yost pile on the complications with relish. Of course, the bus driver has to get shot by a paranoid passenger . . . Of course, a plucky woman (Sandra Bullock) must take the wheel, heading straight for a baby carriage . . . and wouldn't you know, when the bus finds its way to a safe, unopened freeway, there'll be an unfinished gap in the overpass lurking just ahead . . .

Nor is the bus the whole story. First we're treated to a bombing attempt in a crowded, high-rise elevator, and for a grand finale we get a life-and-death struggle aboard a speeding Metro Rail train. Though it's not as glossily imposing as ""Die Hard'' (photographed by De Bont), it shares that same giddy, can-you-top-this spirit. It's not a movie about star turns: Reeves, Bullock and Hopper are team players here, and they get the job done with an admirable lack of histrionic fuss (OK, maybe not Hopper: he wouldn't be Hopper if he didn't get to rant a bit). Relentless without being overbearing, this is one likely blockbuster that doesn't feel too big for its britches. It's a friendly juggernaut.