Keanu Reeves may not possess the same massive star power of his “Matrix” days, but in recent years, the actor has shown a more appealing path. Following the jubilant post-modern martial arts efforts “47 Ronin” and “Man of Tai Chi,” Reeves stars in the hugely satisfying B-movie “John Wick” with the confidence of an actor right where he belongs. Like Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson, Reeves’ performances in guilty pleasure fare are both straightforward and dripping with irony, with “John Wick” providing one of the best examples. Neither surprising or groundbreaking in any particular way, the movie gives us what we want and leaves it at that.
As the title character, the typically monotonous thespian plays a retired hitman coping with his wife’s death by finding companionship in the puppy she leaves behind. When the pet is abruptly murdered by the spoiled offspring (Alfie Allen) of a Russian crime lord (an enjoyably gruff Michael Nyqvist), Wick returns to action for one last violent streak, gearing up to avenge the death of his beloved pooch. Bullets fly and bodies fall as the reformed killer gradually gets closer to his target.
“John Wick” makes up for its lack of sophistication in the sheer eagerness it brings to the scenario. Its chief villain, who puts a contract out on Wick and spends much of the movie sending his goons on ill-fated trips to take him down, frequently speaks in Russian, while his dialogue is subtitled in colorful, glistening text that emphasizes the cartoonish nature of the proceedings. Though it never reaches the absurd heights suggested by such stylistic flourishes, first-time director Chad Stahelski effectively stages a series of fast-paced showdowns with ample payoffs. When a series of masked gunmen surface at Wicks’ home, his immediate reaction — a blend of fast-paced physical maneuvers and gunplay — may as well be a muscular shrug, but the showdown is so fluidly staged that it’s impossible not to enjoy the effortless ride.
And there’s plenty more right around the corner. While Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki offer solid turns as fellow killers from Wick’s past, for the most part, “John Wick” is a showcase for Reeves that doesn’t ask more from him than the usual routine. With his stony expression and robotic delivery, the actor fits a plot so mechanically devised it’s the cinematic equivalent of a shiny wind-up doll. Sure, Wick’s monologue explaining his passion for his dearly departed pet borders on absurdity, but when he lashes out, no choppy editing obscures the action. Staheski — whose previous credits mainly involve Hollywood stunt work — takes his movie’s primary entertainment value seriously.
“John Wick” doesn’t only rest on Reeves’ fundamental appeal. The movie’s freewheeling atmosphere veers from the film noir ingredients of a shady nightclub to the more unruly, low-rent qualities of the revenge narratives made by exploitation maven William Lustig 30 years ago. Set to a vibrant soundtrack of rock and techno, Derek Koldstad’s screenplay brings the material to life with relentlessly punchy dialogue. “You dip so much as a pinky into this pond,” one of Wick’s former colleagues says, “you may find something drags you back to its depths.” Of course, that’s exactly the sort of pronouncement that only makes Wick stronger.
Ultimately, no amount of well-timed action choreography can salvage the movie’s humorless tone or its underwhelming climax, which arrives as even more of an afterthought than the clichéd premise. Fists fly and torrential rain barrels down amid terse exchanges. “John Wick” concludes so abruptly it’s almost like everyone involved gave up before they got there. At the same time, one can’t fault it for lunging at low-hanging fruit. Every step of the way, the movie’s designed to satisfy expectations rather than transcending them. “They know you’re coming,” Wick is warned as he veers toward his target. “It won’t matter,” he replies, and he’s right.
“John Wick” opens nationwide on October 24.