As former hitman John Wick goes on a remorseless, gory rampage following the theft of his Mustang and the murder of his new puppy, most audiences won’t exactly be rooting for him. After all, his nonstop, morally dubious and physically improbable slaughter is overkill in the most literal of senses. Instead, those who find themselves watching this well-crafted, ultra-violent, simple-minded action flick (yes, this is one of those movies that screams to be called a ‘flick’), will more likely find themselves cheering on the man who plays John Wick: Keanu Reeves.
Of course, most people with even a passing knowledge of films know Reeves as Neo from The Matrix. At the time, the moniker given to Neo, ‘The One’, applied to Reeves as well: he was a brand new movie star — who appeared as both a relatable everyman and a complete badass — coming to usher in a new age of blockbuster filmmaking. Yet, for whatever reason, this promising debut did not translate to a bright future. Was the toxic disaster that was The Matrix Revolutions to blame? Was it because Reeves comes off more cold and enigmatic than the more affable personas of a George Clooney or a Tom Hanks? Maybe it’s because his post-Matrix starring roles were mostly underwhelming non-hits like Constantine, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and 47 Ronin. It’s probably a combination of all of these factors.
You can’t help but feel bad for the guy (though it’s not like he really needs the sympathy) for falling off the map. And just as the John Wick character comes out of retirement as a much-feared assassin to exact gruesome vengeance, the film John Wick is just as much his Keanu Reeves coming out of his own ‘retirement’. It’s the actor’s own visceral, retribution (though he is acting instead of killing) that gives the film a double meaning. You want to see Wick succeed because you want to see Keanu succeed, and vice versa. That’s called perfect casting.
Meanwhile, John Wick‘s plot is as straightforward as can be. The first sentence of this review is basically all there is to it. I could have embellished it with details — the puppy was gifted to him from beyond the grave by his freshly-deceased wife, and the young thug who stole his car is the son of an influential Russian mob boss (played by Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who can never quite wrap his tongue around a Russian accent). Wick has no reservations about butchering anyone who stands in his way of killing the one punk who wronged him. There are some other characters too, like Willem Dafoe as loyal friend of Wick’s and Adrianne Palicki who hunts Wick for a bounty.
But ultimately, those specifics are just background noise. The film instead operates in the same vein as recent pure action films like The Raid: Redemption and Dredd; you understand the protagonist’s goal very quickly, and it’s all just an excuse to see a string of ferocious fight sequences. It’s essentially an R-rated Taken (in my mind a stone-cold genre classic), though first-time director Chad Stahelski is more acutely aware of just how utterly ridiculous and simplistic his movie is than Luc Besson seemed to be when he unleashed Liam Neeson’s action star career. Specifically, John Wick doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously, opting for a playful sense of humor mostly centered around the fact that absolutely everyone Wick interacts with already knows him personally, from his days as the notoriously ruthless ‘Boogeyman’.
Stahelski doesn’t waste precious time developing his characters or philosophizing on humanity’s cruelty; he’s smart enough to recognize that insight or deep character exploration is not what these kinds of movies are for. Such ambitions would just slow it down. As a result of the barebones script by Derek Kolstad, John Wick feels as refreshingly unpretentious as Taken and simultaneously leaves itself wide open to build up and maintain its breakneck momentum. Unlike Taken, kills are vividly bloody and accompanied by equally horrific sound effects. There’s also a satisfying sense of escalation as Wick progresses from using only a knife to a pistol to larger forms of firepower from one sequence to the next. All of this feels very much like a video game, a comparison that the movie is well aware of and references very clearly.
There’s a long action sequence inside a night club, complete with an abundance of neon and blaring techno music that drowns out gunfire, which stands as the film’s crowning achievement. It’s a beautiful set piece that highlights the movie’s overall visual slickness, which even carries over to some very cool-looking subtitles. The film’s blend of modern and retro aesthetics is reminiscent of, but not quite as polished or thorough as, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Stahelski overdoes it a bit with the lens flare, though.
For many, the film’s energy will likely steamroll over any flaws, but I still found a couple of problems that hold the movie back from being a classic. I’m sure many will disagree, but I’ve never found Keanu Reeves to be charismatic or personable, and I found this particularly glaring here. While this role fits Reeves’ frigid temperament to a tee, it’s hard to really connect with his character like I could with Neeson’s Bryan Mills. Despite how visceral and engaging the action is, Keanu’s consistently wooden disposition kept me thoroughly at a distance.
Also, the film’s final showdown which has Reeves facing off against Nyqvist, is abrupt and anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that Nyqvist never really makes his bag guy feel very intimidating. He often comes off more like a buffoon who has others do all of the work for him, which means there’s never really a sense that he is a formidable match.
John Wick is still a pure adrenaline rush, a triumphant exercise in effective, succinct action filmmaking that doesn’t want to waste your time and doesn’t need to. Ultimately, this is Keanu Reeves’ movie. When Wick proclaims “I’m back,” you really feel that the words are coming from the man behind the character. Whatever your opinion of Reeves may be, it’s cool to see a film bleed into real life (and vice versa) like this, and it certainly helps that the movie itself is pretty damn awesome.
Score: 3.5 out of 5