It certainly seems as though Keanu Reeves has been in hiding for the past few years. While this certainly isn’t the case, making his little seen directorial debut with ‘Man Of Tai Chi’ and staring in the occasional sci fi remake or goofy over budget samurai flick here and there, it’s arguable that he hasn’t had a truly stand out role since The Matrix all the way back in 1999. John Wick aims to change all that, and give him an action vehicle explosively bad-ass enough to revive his career, a-la Liam Neeson in Taken.
The film opens soon after retired hit-man John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) wife Helen passes away. As his grieving process begins, he receives one last gift sent from Helen right before she died, a small, adorable Beagle named Daisy. This seemingly gives John a chance at finding inner peace, until one fateful day. At a local gas station he comes across Iosef (Alfie Allen), the punk son of John’s former mob boss employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). When John rejects Iosef’s offer to buy his car, Iosef retaliates in force, invading John’s house and killing Daisy. Little does Iosef know who he’s just trifled with, as John possesses a set of skills lethal enough to “kill the boogyman”, and his indiscretion has unleashed the widely feared assassin upon him and his family.
If there’s anything that this film proves, it’s that a simple B-Movie can rise above the norm and be fantastic just by sheer effort alone. John Wick is feverishly determined to entertain from frame one, and it does achieves just that in spades through a wonderful combination of beautifully physical and theatrical performances, frenetic action sequences, and an inventive world for it’s characters to play in.
Let’s just start by taking a moment to appreciate our leading man. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed seeing Reeves in these sort of roles, having gotten annoyed with some of his flat out silly choices over the last few years, but here he shows that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Preforming most of, if not all of his own stunts here, his sheer physicality is incredible to watch as he mows his way through enemy after enemy with the grace and power of a man half of his fifty year age. Beyond that, he does a really solid job as an actor here, in fact, this may be the best performance I’ve ever seen him give. Funny, likable, and above all, deeply relatable in the emotional moments, we emphasize with his rage and root for him the entire way though. It’s one of the most rock solid leading performances in an action film in many years.
The supporting cast is littered with character actors who are all just as strong as Reeves. Most surprisingly so is Nyqvist, who played a similar main villain role in ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’ to much lamer effect. Here, he not only intimidates, but also finds some great moments of humor in what could have been a fairly stock villain. William Defoe and Ian McShane show up as two fairly different mentors of John, McShane’s character with a much more sinister purpose, and add gravitas to each word they say. Meanwhile, Allen is appropriately slimy and despicable, and Adrianne Palicki (who is having a hell of a week between this and her debut on Agents of SHIELD) has fun as a hit woman sent to take John out. None of these characters are particularly deep, but they’re so well written and defined that they still greatly aid in establishing the crazy world this film lives in.
Speaking of which, perhaps the most fun aspect of this film is that very world. Taking a cue from ‘Wanted’ to much cooler effect, all of the assassins in this film have known each other for a long time, living in a network that all converges in a hotel called The Continental that acts as a safe house for people in the line of work. This means that we get to see a great deal of fun interactions between John and the other characters as they all react to his return, giving us a sense that there’s a lot of history here that could be explored in future installments. It’s never shoved in our face though merely acting as a nice backbone to spice the proceedings up.
Make no mistake though, the centerpiece of this film is the action, and holy hell does it deliver. First time directing duo David Leitch, and Chad Stahelski come from a background of stunt coordination, and it shows. Each of the extended action set pieces here are not only incredibly physical, but masterfully photographed in five to ten second long takes. We see every punch, throw, or headshot (of which there are many), as Wick efficiently and brutally takes out his foes. Once this action starts, it rarely lets up, creating a non stop roller coaster ride of stylish carnage. However, this isn’t just action for the sake of it, there’s real artistry here, each fight not only serving a purpose in the story, but exuding themselves through sheer technique.
The only minor misgiving i have here is that there is so much action, that after a while, it starts to feel just a touch redundant. John isn’t particularly interested in changing things up, going for shots to the head whenever he can, and as such, the last few fights definitely do blend together. However, the climax is spectacular, and the ending satisfying, so it shouldn’t be too much of a bother.
While this is certainty not a film you go to for deep characters, or a winding, powerful narrative, it utterly succeeds at being exactly what it’s trying to be. Imagine the fast pace and scale of ‘Taken’ combined with the brutality and artistry of ‘Drive’, and throw in a little of ‘The Raid’ for good measure, and then you will have John Wick. It’s not only one of the best straight action films in years (possibly ever), but it’s a perfect comeback for Reeves, who I now deeply look forward to seeing in other things, one of which will hopefully be a sequel to this.