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Speed Racer

In the thriller ''Speed,'' the young actor adds action hero to his already-diverse career

Little Frida's, a lesbian coffee shop in West Hollywood, may be one of the few places in America where the androgynous beauty of Keanu Reeves is lost on the local populace. Its sole customer, who's wearing a nose ring and has a large, colorful tattoo crawling up her back, barely offers a bored glance as Reeves glides by, singing along with piped-in U2. Soft-spoken and courteous, Reeves has a china-doll complexion, black beads for eyes, and a worn leather book with handwritten notes on Hamlet poking out of the pocket of his scraggly suede jacket. Sipping his cranberry juice and appearing politely horrified by the femo-phallic artwork on the walls — "Good morning!" he says, astounded, to one graphic painting — Reeves appears more like a slacker poet than the next great action hero.

Looks can deceive. In Speed, Reeves' nerves-of-steel performance as LAPD SWAT cop Jack Traven has Twentieth Century Fox so commercially pumped it rushed the film's release, changing it from August to June 10. Costarring Jeff Daniels as Jack's partner and Dennis Hopper as the madman who has rigged a bus to explode if its speed falls below 50 mph, the action-infused suspense thriller has generated such good buzz that Fox is already talking sequel, and Hollywood insiders are lauding Reeves as the next — take your pick — Sly/Arnold/Bruce. The Speed star's response: Thanks, but no thanks. "I don't have any ambition to do that," says Reeves. "I'm not averse to working in the genre again; it was good, clean fun. But my ambition is variety."

The scruffy, skinny guy with a Chia Pet hairstyle is not the most obvious choice to muscle into testosterone territory. Nor does he have the resume. With 20 films to his credit, Reeves, 29, is best known for his portrayal of the burnout Ted in 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and its 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. He did Shakespeare last summer in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and he hopes to play Hamlet next January on the Canadian stage. Indeed, Reeves' current role as Prince Siddhartha — the last inaction hero — in Little Buddha may be better suited to his gentle, somewhat otherworldly demeanor.

But that doesn't stop the makers of Speed from touting their star's dude-of-steel credentials. "I've worked with Mel, Bruce, et cetera, et cetera, but people are ready for a new, younger action hero, especially one young people can relate to," says Speed's first-time director Jan De Bont, previously the cinematographer for Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, and Die Hard. "I always felt Keanu would be perfect after seeing Point Break [in which he played a surfing fed].... What is nice about him as an action hero is that he's vulnerable on the screen. He's not threatening to men because he's not that bulky, and he looks great to women." The Dutch director nonetheless felt that Reeves needed an image makeover. "To me he represented something too young, too cool — hippie. He's represented too much the grunge look for too long. I felt like he had to grow up. In this movie he is really coming of age."

Keanu. In Hawaiian it means cool breezes over the mountains. Named after his great-uncle, he thinks, Reeves, who is part Hawaiian, was raised by his mother and stepfather in Toronto, where he attended four high schools in five years before dropping out. After working at a hockey rink and in an Italian food store, he took acting lessons and found roles in community theater, local television, and commercials. At 19, the fledgling actor got into his "thrash mobile," a 1969 Volvo, and drove to Los Angeles, where he's lived ever since.

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