Alternate History: How Keanu Reeves Might Have Saved Akira – And Himself [Humor]

By Arturo R. García

By now, the Akira live-action adaptation is threatening to turn into the Spider-Man musical of ill-advised Americanizations. Not only has Legendary Pictures, which was supposed to co-finance the two-film project with Warner Brothers, reportedly ended its’ involvement, but WB President Jeff Rubinov, either too desperate or too myopic to care about fans’ casting concerns, allegedly personally offered the lead role of Kaneda to 46-year-old Keanu Reeves.

This isn’t the first time Reeves has been connected to a movie based on an iconic Japanese story; for a couple of years, he was reportedly up for the part of Spike Spiegel in a Cowboy Bebop adaptation. But what would have happened if somebody – somebody with access to, let’s say, a certain time-traveling phone-booth – had enabled Reeves to play Kaneda, the teen anti-hero, when he truly looked the part? How would the news clippings from those pre-Internet days have read? As the great Vin Scully likes to say, the saddest words of tongue and pen are these:
What might have been …

September 1989:
HOLLYWOOD (AP) – Following the surprise success of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, young Keanu Reeves made an equally surprising choice for a follow-up project, announcing at a press conference today that he had been tapped to star in a live live-action adaptation of Akira, a Japanese comic-book – or manga, as they’re known in Japan – that became a cult hit on U.S. shores as both a comic and an animated movie (aka anime).

Reeves, 21, will be spurning a sure-fire hit sequel for three years’ worth of work on the project, set to unfold over two films, which will be shot back-to-back in and around Japan. He will play Sho Kaneda, a teenage delinquent who finds himself fighting a government conspiracy in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo.

The production itself is something unique: a partnership between Delaurentis Entertainment Group (DEG), the studio behind Bill & Ted, and the AKIRA Committee, the alliance of Japanese entertainment companies behind the animated film. Kathsushiro Otomo, who wrote the screenplay while working to complete his original comic-book version, was retained as a consultant on the American script – though one key condition specified the story would remain based in Japan.

Unconfirmed reports say a mysterious “man in black” helped broker the landmark deal between DEG – which had been reeling financially before Bill & Ted’s success – and the AKIRA Committee. Though DEG and committee officials once again rebuffed those reports at their joint press conference, Reeves was seen smiling to himself when the issue was brought up.

Later, when a reporter noted that Kaneda’s look – mop-topped hair and red jacket – was similar to the outfits Reeves wore while playing Ted Preston, he replied, “Yeah, so I’ve been told,” then laughed.

Attempts to reach Reeve’s Bill & Ted co-star, Alex Winter, for comment were unsuccessful.

February 1992
“I feel like I’ve aged ten years,” Reeves tells me before sipping his second Ramune Soda, a taste he says he picked up while filming Akira from, of all people, venerable Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who he met while Mifune was filming a cameo appearance.

“It’s barely been three,” I reply.

“Things move faster over there. Must be the trains,” Reeves says, and flashes a confident smile. This role, he tells me, will be the one to break him out of the burgeoning shadow of Bill & Ted forever.

“You always worry that you’re going to get associated with a certain type of role,” he says after polishing off the Ramune. “I liked Ted as a character, and I loved working with Alex, but I didn’t want to run the risk of being ‘Whoa’ Guy forever, y’know?”

I ask Reeves if he’s heard from the reclusive Mr. Winter. He nods, with a hint of sadness, no.
- Excerpt from “Big (Gamble) In Japan: Keanu Reeves Lays It On The Line With ‘Akira,’” by Kurt Loder., Rolling Stone, Feb. 13, 1992.

June 10, 1992
“What a wacky, wacky award.”
- Alex Winter, after winning Most Desirable Male for his comeback performance in Point Break at the inaugural MTV Movie Awards.

July 6, 1992
HOLLYWOOD (AP) – Japan claimed a victory over Independence Day weekend, as Akira, the Keanu Reeves-led adaptation of a Japanese comic-book, outpaced Harrison Ford’s Patriot Games to win a highly-anticipated box-office showdown.

Akira, backed by both a mammoth promotional campaign in both the U.S. and Japan and an avid existing fanbase in both countries, took in $10 million on its’ first weekend in theaters. Reeves made waves last week when he arrived at the film’s U.S. premiere riding a version of the souped-up motorbike his character, Kaneda, uses in the movie.

July 13, 1993
“As a wise man once said, what a wacky, wacky award.”
- Keanu Reeves, after winning Most Desirable Male for his performance in Akira at the MTV Movie Awards. Reeves and co-star Reiko Chiba shared the award for Best Kiss, and Reeves also took home the Best Male Performance award, beating out odds-on favorite Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.

January 3, 1994
HOLLYWOOD (AP) – As Hollywood’s fever for adapting Japanese media properties grows, Universal Pictures announced today that 19-year-old Tobey Maguire has been tapped to play Rick Hunter in an upcoming feature-film version of the classic Robotech animated series. Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Point Break, the upcoming Speed) will play Hunter’s big brother and mentor, Colonel Roy Fokker, while Winona Ryder has been linked to the female lead role, Commander Lisa Hayes.

June 10, 1995
BURBANK, Calif. (AP) – Not only did the MTV Movie Awards end in a tie, but Quentin Tarantino himself was tongue-tied.

“Pop quiz, hot shot! What do you do when you’ve been going to award show after award show all year long, and keep losing to Forrest Gump?” the rambunctious director asked the crowd toward the end of the evening. “You go to the MTV Movie Awards … only to run into Keanu (censored) Reeves? Dude, you’re a bigger (censored) buzzkill than Godzilla!”

What was expected to be Tarantino’s long-delayed awards-show triumph for Pulp Fiction turned into a twist not even he could have penned, as the conclusion to Reeve’s Akira series, released in the summer of 1994 and buoyed by a record voter turnout from Japan, nudged itself into half of the spotlight at the eleventh hour, earning an unprecedented tie in the Best Picture category.

For his part, Reeves promised his fans there was no truth to rumors of his impending retirement before escorting a flummoxed Tarantino from the stage.

The shocking results of the Best Picture voting will, at least temporarily, swing the spotlight away from the night’s other big surprise winner, George Carlin, who won Best Villain for his work in Speed.

July 1998
“Reeves, is that your grumpy face?” Alex Winter asks, before ducking out of the way of a couple of fingers’ worth of vegemite.

“How’s that for ‘disagreeable,’ Al?” Keanu Reeves shoots back from across the room, smiling. They’ve both heard the rumors, that this has been the winter – at least, in America – of their discontent, shooting what Reeves has called his “final run”: another sci-fi action piece called The Matrix.

Clearly, though, things are peaceful in Australia, where the bulk of the shooting will take place, before the Brothers Wachowski have their way with the footage in the editing room. For Reeves, playing the lead character (a “slightly more mature” version of Sho Kaneda, he says), it’s a peace he says he won after what he describes as “some pretty heavy conversations” – with himself.

“It was made clear to me that this is probably as good as I’m ever going to have it,” he says, grabbing another imported Ramune bottle from the mini-fridge. By whom? “Why, by myself, of course.” A twinkle flashes in his eyes, briefly, before handing a second soda to Winter, here playing the baddie, a rather humorless chap called Agent Smith. But what next?

“I don’t know, maybe I can help more good stories find an audience,” he says. “I hear good things about this one anime – ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ it’s called …”
- Excerpted from “Reeves’ & Winter’s Last Adventure,” by Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, July 16, 1998.