Lately, the impending arrival of a Keanu Reeves action movie has been something to dread rather than get excited about. Thankfully, the delightfully nostalgic, deliberate throwback ‘John Wick’ has put an end to these concerns. This sucker is the real deal. Recognize.
The best part of ‘John Wick’ is how bare-bones it is as a piece of genre filmmaking. The plot unfolds with the efficiency of a vintage Walter Hill picture. No time is wasted with tiresome backstories or heavy-handed character motivations. The audience is given the bare minimum of information required to understand why all of the shoot-outs and bloodletting go down. The past is eluded to only briefly and flippantly, often as a joke. The rest is just a straight-up rush to the good stuff that audiences showed up for in the first place.
Keanu Reeves plays the sad and vaguely tragic lead character. In the opening scenes, we learn that his wife just died, leaving behind a dog in an attempt to fill the gap. That’s all he’s got. Just as soon as we become attached to their relationship, a group of young punk Russian gangsters show up at his house unannounced to kill the dog and steal his sweet vintage car. Shortly after, the lead punk learns from his crime lord father (Michael Nyqvist) that John Wick is a retired assassin and by far the deadliest in the game. The fury of Wick will now come down upon them in a hail of bullets, killing everyone and everything in his way. Cue the action. End of narrative.
And oh how wonderful the action is! Directed by longtime Hollywood stunt coordinators David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, ‘John Wick’ is strictly a physical action affair with very little digital enhancement. The set-pieces are all based around blades, handguns and harsh combat. The flick has the raw physicality, edge and intensity of an early John Woo movie without any of the slow-mo ballet flourishes. It’s dirty and nasty action, yet with some pretty exquisite choreography and a dark streak of humor that keeps viewers laughing and cheering.
The directors revive the brand of gunplay action audiences craved in the ’90s with the boundless forward momentum of a ’70s or ’80s exploitation movie. It’s a pure entertainment rush, just one that leaves you with a little dirt under your fingernails. Leitch and Stahelski have created an old-school action movie for viewers who lament the death of the form. As a cherry on top, they prove to be pretty damn entertaining storytellers as well.
Aside from being a revenge flick, ‘John Wick’ can also be categorized as one of those old-men-returning-to-action movies that have flooded screens since ‘Taken’. Keanu might not quite be as grizzled and aged as Liam Neeson, but he has slowly slid out of the limelight since his ‘Matrix’ heyday, so a comeback was in order. Not only do the directors take full advantage of the fact that Reeves is more than capable at delivering the on-screen gunplay with ease, they also give him a role perfectly suited to his skill-set.
A quick Google or trip to YouTube will confirm that Reeves isn’t exactly a master thespian. However, he has a strong screen presence and is perfectly believable within a small window of human behavior. As a cold-hearted killer who never expresses emotion, the actor can step up and deliver just fine. Then when it comes time to knock off dozens of bad guys, he’s right in his comfort zone. Reeves delivers plenty of knuckle sandwiches with ease and then tosses off some deadpan comedy and stoic pain for good measure. This is the best he’s been on screen in over a decade. Surrounding Reeves are a collection of character actors like Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, and best of all Ian McShane, who handle the heavier acting, dole out a little ass-kickery, and have way too much fun with the tongue-in-cheek comedy.
Add it all together and you’ve got yourself one big blast of an action movie. It’s funny, dark, pretty to look at, well performed, expertly paced, and most importantly filled with boundless streams of stylish bloodshed. ‘John Wick’ is not a movie that dares to challenge genre conventions. It makes no attempt to poke at grand themes or challenge the form. It’s a straight-up, basic B-movie – no fuss, no muss. The movie sees no shame in aiming for that goal and then surpasses expectations.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone craving a little old-school R-rated action could possibly be disappointed. If the movie proves to be the box office hit that it deserves, Reeves should be primed for a comeback, while Leitch and Stahelski should find themselves on a path to becoming the newest hot shot action manufacturers in Hollywood. I can’t imagine anyone saw that coming. What a slick, sick little genre treat.