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‘Henry’s Crime’

The light at the end of the tunnel is ... Keanu?

by Kaori Shoji

There’s such a thing in this world as aging gracefully (see Brad Pitt), and then there’s Keanu Reeves, which is another thing altogether. The average cinephile may not describe Reeves as a “thing,” but take it from one who knows: At this point in time he may be the only one in his weight class who could get into the ring in full Thing glory to show the world what he’s made of.

For those young whippersnappers who have trouble pronouncing his first name, much less recall a movie he’s been in lately, Reeves is perfectly preserved icon from the 1980s. He got his first big “serious” role in a Gus Van Sant movie called “My Own Private Idaho,” which caused legions of grown women (and men too, of course) to weep with gratitude at the emergence of a genuine beautiful-boy deity.

That he couldn’t act was beside the point. Reeves just being there was more important. The years went on; actors of his generation changed or got old or disappeared from the veldt, but Reeves remained his same pretty, wooden self.

Two decades after his breakthrough, Reeves’ latest is “Henry’s Crime,” and it’s instructional, not to mention astounding, to see how little he has changed.

For the record, though, Reeves unbends a little as the titular Henry to engage in a little emoting, a little humor — hell, even some reluctant acting, in a way that makes you suspect maybe someone had him at gunpoint or kidnapped his grandmother: “Act, or else!”

But director Malcolm Venville must have styled Henry after Reeves’ persona: Whatever trials, tribulations and passionate moments assail Henry, nothing seems to leave the slightest mark on that smooth, pale skin. At one point, he gets run over by a car, his body dramatically bouncing off the door, but even then he stays calm and carries on.

At the time of his arrest, Henry was a toll booth collector in Buffalo, New York, married to an equally bland wife and coasting through life with zero ambition. He was never cut out for crime, which is probably why his softball buddies tricked him into assisting a bank heist and had him take the fall. A year later, he gets out, goes home to Buffalo and decides to rob the very bank he never robbed in the first place, but went to jail for robbing anyway. For Henry, it’s a reversal of fortune in the purest sense of the term.

Quickly, Henry accumulates new friends and interests, namely a stage actress named Julie (Vera Farmiga) and an ex-con named Max (James Caan), the latter of whom brings the oily, sleazy Eddie (Fisher Stevens) into the circle. Julie is appearing in a production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” and the story does an in-out threading between the happenings on stage and Henry’s robbery, which involves a bootlegger tunnel leading from the theater to the bank.

Predictably, there’s a lot of digging dirt and double-crossing going on in this murky tunnel, and the overall ambience is so retro it takes you right back to the Hollywood studio pictures of, oh, the 1950s or so.

In fact, Reeves would look just right next to James Stewart or a similar low-temperature guy. The mood is considerably enhanced by the fact that Julie is in period costume for “The Cherry Orchard” for about half the movie and Henry has several scenes where he dons a stiff wig and beard.

“Henry’s Crime” has conflicting flavors — rom-com, retro noir, Chekhov play, plus Hollywood veterans such as Caan and Stevens adorning the sides (and sometimes center) of the frame like twin stone statues from another era. But this is a Keanu Reeves vehicle all the way.

Adding spice is Farmiga — like Julie, she’s an East Coast girl from a large working-class family and her no-nonsense, earthy sexiness translates well to Julie’s character. When Henry solemnly intones “I love you,” and makes it sound like a voice from zombie-land, Julie looks about to burst into helpless giggling that will surely last for five minutes until she can finally stop, gasping for air. And then the moment is gone.

It’s little things like this that make a Keanu Reeves film so darn entertaining. Here’s hoping he’ll carry on another 20 years.