Movie review: John Wick - 'Keanu Reeves' new thriller is a show-stopper'
Poor old Keanu Reeves has never been short of critics, who delight in pouring scorn on his sometimes constipated acting style and apparent lack of range. But I've always had a soft spot for the chap, who is hugely charismatic, and a better actor that some people seem to think.
Back in his youth, before he got typecast as a monosyllabic action lummox, Keanu played vulnerable, damaged characters in films like Parenthood and My Own Private Idaho, and in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure displayed a flair for comedy that's been roundly ignored ever since.
Then Speed came along, and since then it's been shoot-outs, car chases and kung-fu combat pretty much all the way. In that respect, this latest film is very much business as usual, with Reeves playing a former hit-man who goes on the rampage after being disrespected by a former associate.
But while John Wick's plot is perfunctory and rather one-dimensional, it's used by directors and former stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch as a springboard into a fluid and fluent action adventure that's as stylish as it is visually inventive.
Mr. Wick, when we first encounter him, is not a happy bunny. Once he was a widely feared mob enforcer for a high-living Russian hoodlum called Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyquist), but John Wick found contentment and a way out of his old life through the love of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan).
Now she's died of an incurable illness, leaving Wick to wander around their breathtaking ultramodern home disconsolate. Things get considerably worse when a gang of hoodlums take a shine to his vintage Mustang and break into his house to steal it, beating him badly and killing an unbearably cute puppy dog his wife had posthumously bequeathed him.
The puppy's the straw, Wick the camel's back, and soon he is marching out of retirement to kill everyone who ever said hello to the men that attacked him. Tarsov is drawn into the escalating conflict when it emerges that his skittish and sociopathic son Iosef (Alfie Allen) was the fool who killed the puppy, and the mob boss hires a rival assassin called Marcus (Willem Dafoe) to take out Wick before it's too late.
This is the type of story that's been told a thousand times, but hollow tales can make outstanding movies, as John Boorman proved in Point Blank (1967). That film is referenced constantly in this one, and Mr. Reeves' unflappable killer has a good deal in common with Lee Marvin's Walker, who grew sick and tired of explaining to everyone he killed or tortured that he just wanted his damned money back. John Wick wants everyone to pay for his personal pain, and as his pile of victims grows ever higher, the viewer begins to feel like the protagonist in a first person shooter game.
That, however, is not a criticism of John Wick, which has a sly sense of humour to complement its beautifully rendered, noir-ish and stylised landscape. I like the way no one ever refers to him as John, Johnny, or Wicky, it's the full name all the time as though he's a kind of supernatural force, or entity. And Michael Nyquist and Ian McShane are very amusing in hammy supporting turns.
Once that doggie dies, and Wick gets going, the film rolls forward with exponential momentum through a series of complex and brilliantly executed fight scenes that contain some of the best stunts and action editing I've seen. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch handle all this with unusual clarity, and deliberately avoid the super-fast, flick edits that make most modern fight sequences very difficult to follow or care about.
And Keanu Reeves is mysterious and monosyllabic in the lead role, moving gracefully through scene after scene on his unstoppable orgy of vengeance.