After starring in “The Matrix” (and its two mixed-bag sequels), Keanu Reeves could have done just about anything—including becoming Hollywood’s next great action star. Instead, he demurred, taking oddball roles in smaller movies, tinkering away on an ultimately illuminating documentary about the sea change happening in film (“Side by Side“) and directing his own martial arts extravaganza (last year’s unfairly overlooked “Man of Tai Chi“). Even an earnest attempt at mainstream studio fare, like “47 Ronin,” ends up being far stranger than it has any right to be. The mold was there, he just refused to fit into it. All of this greatly informs the actor’s decision to star in “John Wick.” Ostensibly it’s a B-grade action movie about a hitman’s quest for (bloody) revenge, but in Reeves’ nimble hands, it becomes a much more joyous experience. It’s a comic book fantasy of how the criminal underworld works, anchored mostly by Reeves’ raw charisma.
The storyline here is admittedly rote, and the all-too-familiar narrative begins with the titular John Wick (Reeves) having lost everything: his wife has recently passed away due to some never-specified terminal illness, and the puppy she gave him (as a way to continue living and healthily mourn her passing) is brutally killed by a trio of Russian goons who break into his house (no seriously). Wick has a dark side, we see him angrily hot-rodding around a local airstrip, his face contorted into a Halloween mask of pure rage, unleashed when the one fragment of his former life is taken away. Yes, dramatically, “John Wick” isn’t particularly sophisticated.
Of course, since this is a high-octane action movie and not an existential treatise on the willowy stages of grief, Wick finds himself slipping back into his former life, one in which he was the most ruthlessly lethal assassin on the East Coast (one character describes him as “the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman”). This means that his frumpy suburban wear is swapped out for some spiffy dark suits, and he breaks into the cement floor in his basement, revealing a large chest stuffed with murder weapons. Wick then goes about systematically dispatching those responsible for his home invasion, including the son of a big time crime boss he used to work for, a flourish the character chalks up to fate or “bad fucking luck.”
Totally awash in narrative cliché, even for a genre picture, “John Wick” plays out more or less as you’d expect it to, with the character working his way through an ever-growing list of underworld scumbags via splashy, well-choreographed action sequences that don’t skimp on the gunplay. Sure, these are bargain basement thrills, but when they’re done with this much aplomb, this much gilded, fetishistic style (rendered in gorgeously anamorphic widescreen), it’s hard not to get a kick out of all that bloody mayhem. This won’t be the most intellectual action movie you’ll experience this year, especially since it’s not really worried about upending genre conventions or playing with the form (like, say, “The Guest” or “The Raid 2“), but it delivers in a way that few action movies do these days, harkening back to the meat-and-potatoes satisfaction of Reeves’ own “Point Break.”
One of the more unexpected aspects of “John Wick” is the way that it creates a fully realized comic book version of the world of organized crime (seriously, this is closer in tone to “Dick Tracy” than “The Departed“). In “John Wick,” most villainous transactions are paid for via solid gold coins that suggest doubloons from a pirate’s treasure, when you need a body disposed of you call some unlisted number and ask for a “reservation,” and an upscale downtown club called The Continental caters specifically to underworld goons. This level of controlled fantasy, which never tips too far into the realm of the surreal or is overdone to the point of obnoxious self-awareness, sets the film apart from other action movies and also allows the violence to take on a level of cathartic cartoonishness. Sure, it’s grisly and bloody as hell, but it never feels ugly or damaging. It’s the character’s way of dealing with a very personal pain, and that translates to a much more palpable exploration of similar feelings for any given audience. Stripped of its grimness, “John Wick” actually ends up being more powerful than it otherwise would have been.
Most of the credit for “John Wick’s” success falls squarely on Reeves. As a performer, he has always been underrated, especially when he took on roles that deviated from his suggested path of mainstream heartthrob. Now, even when he plays characters that are closer to those ideals, he still seems to get looked over or ignored (how nobody saw “Man of Tai Chi” is beyond us). In “John Wick,” he’s able to give the character weight and dimension in ways that ultimately boggle the mind. Even an otherwise laughable moment when Reeves breaks down and cries, mourning the death of his dog but also the passing of his wife, works (OK, maybe there’s a few chuckles). It’s an emotional beat that you don’t expect from a movie that predominantly features a Marilyn Manson song on the soundtrack. But that’s what Reeves brings. As an action performer, he’s even better than he was in “The Matrix” films. His movements have become more refined and balletic, his poise graceful and exacting. The way he uses his guns, not just as inanimate weapons but as extensions of himself, lends the action some additional retro novelty, since most of the time they feel like something out of the works of John Woo (or his imitators). Bullets fly and dance and detonate flesh, and Reeves is their conductor.
As enjoyable as “John Wick” is, including some nifty performances by Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe and, in a role much more animated than his similarly villainous turn in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” Michael Nyqvist, there are instances where it stumbles. The direction, by first-timers David Leitch (who has a background in stunt work) and Chad Stahelski, is occasionally quite slack, and it’s very clear that they can handle squib-heavy set pieces much better than dialogue-driven scenes. The music, composed by at least three people (including Tyler Bates) is forgettable at its best, and, at its worst, distractingly bad. And for the amount of great performers they were able to cram into a down-and-dirty genre movie like this, you wish that the filmmakers had found more for them to do (is Bridget Moynahan really relegated to dead-wife-in-flashbacks status?).
In the end, there are enough pleasures going on in “John Wick” to elevate it above just another dumb action movie. With all the talk of world building going on in big studio fare, it’s impressive that “John Wick” was able to create a fully realized universe, full of unscrupulous gangsters, inept cops and bloody codes of honor, in a way that few of its big budget counterparts are able to accomplish. That this world is centered around Reeves, though, in a wily performance, makes it all the better. This is the kind of project that could revitalize Reeves, still boyishly handsome even at 50, into an elegant middle-aged action star, in a way that is similar to Liam Neeson‘s recent second wind. Of course, Reeves has been so resistant to being typified in one role or the other that even if “John Wick” is a huge success, it’s hard to see him sticking around for subsequent sequels. Reeves has always been restless and maybe that’s why his career has been so imprecise and in the wilds post “The Matrix.” But at least it keeps things interesting. Ultimately, “John Wick” isn’t about to win any awards, or redefine Keanu Reeves’ career path, or even test your IQ. But as actioner with a solid delivery, style and even grace, it possesses all the right kind of B-movie pleasures. [B-]