Keanu Reeves is an easy actor to miscast. He doesn't have a ton of dramatic range, and he has an unusual, atypically passive screen presence that doesn't always fit comfortably with more conventional roles. He feels like an odd anachronism in certain historical dramas (Bram Stoker's Dracula), strangely soppy in certain romantic films (Sweet November) and merely dull in certain generic leading man roles (Chain Reaction). Still, I like Reeves, because his work clicks just as often as it doesn't, and he's fascinating in the right part. His work as Neo in the Matrix trilogy remains the most popular thing he's done, and there's a reason Reeves works so well as an action star. There's something fascinating about seeing his laid-back, ethereal persona filtered through a character with a tough-as-nails exterior. Constantine (for all of its faults) made tremendous use of Reeves' presence, and it kind of amazes me that it's taken this long for another movie to try something similar. Still, at long last, here is John Wick, a film almost solely devoted to the pleasure of watching Keanu Reeves play a badass.
When we first meet John Wick (Reeves), we see him as little more than an ordinary, grieving man. He's just lost his wife to cancer, but she left him one final gift before she passed: a dog, so he'll have something to love in her absence. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film are largely devoted to detailing the growing bond between Wick and his new canine friend, and it must be said that the latter is one of the most adorable movie dogs I've seen in some time. Then, tragedy strikes: a savage young punk (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones) steals Wick's car and kills the dog. The kid is the son of a powerful mobster (Michael Nyqvist, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol), and thus feels comfortable with doing anything he pleases without fear of consequences. The only problem: Wick's a retired assassin, and now he's hellbent on revenge. When the mobster – who also happens to be Wick's former employer – makes a violent move to protect his son, Wick decides that he's going to have to take down the entire organization.
I'll admit, the dog murder was a bit tough for me to watch. I can't explain why the cinematic murder of an animal always seems so much more horrific than the murder of a human – maybe it's the familiarity of human-on-human murder, maybe it's the pure innocence of an animal, maybe it's that animals are incapable or nearly incapable of effectively defending themselves – but it is what it is, and the movie knows that (even if the mobsters Wick takes out don't - “It was just a f---ing dog!” is a recurring, bewildered refrain). After the adorable pup leaves the film, the audience is more than ready for Wick to unleash some serious retribution. It's a plot device which feels a little too manipulative, but at least John Wick doesn't play it as something cutesy – the pain in Wick's eyes when he talks about his lost friend is very real, indeed.
The film is the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both professional stunt men (the latter served as Reeves' stunt double on The Matrix). They evidently know their way around an action scene, delivering a generous handful of thrilling, visceral sequences. You've got fist fights, knife fights, shoot-outs and car chases, and all of these are directed with clarity and kinetic energy. It's an exercise in pure action movie style; existing somewhere at the intersection of Salt, Haywire, Taken and Drive.
Reeves is dynamite in the title role, playing heartbreak, righteous fury and professional courtesy with expert nuance and delivering his minimal, hard-boiled dialogue with just the right deadpan snarl:
Criminal: “If I open that vault for you, they'll kill me!”
Wick (points gun at criminal): “Uh-huh.”
Reeves generally keeps his performance at a steady simmer, save for one brief scene in which he suddenly cranks up some Gary Oldman-level intensity. It's a hugely effective moment, simply because the actor and the filmmakers have the self-control to let that scene pop.
The film is less self-controlled in other areas, though, as nearly every action scene is underscored with “isn't this awesome?!” rock music (courtesy of Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard) which wears out its welcome long before the end credits. Even more obnoxious is the repeated use of the Marilyn Manson tune “Killing Strangers,” which is the most painfully on-the-nose soundtrack choice I've heard recently. Additionally, the film loses its sense of escalating tension during the last act, as it delivers a few too many climaxes in an effort to wraps things up as thoroughly as possible. The movie is cool, but one suspects that it would be a lot cooler if it weren't always trying to remind you of how cool it is.
Still, there's plenty to enjoy. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches - Ian McShane (Deadwood), Lance Reddick (Fringe), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Clarke Peters (The Wire), Dean Winters (30 Rock), Adrienne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) and John Leguizamo (Carlito's Way) are among the the players here - and they all make the most of their brief screentime. Nyqvist seems to be having a grand time as the central villain, chewing the scenery and serving as an effective contrast to Reeves' more stoic performance. The lean, mean, stunt-heavy action scenes are a vast improvement on the more bloated action material we've seen in most of this year's blockbusters. The fictional hotel which serves as the central location for much of the film's midsection is built on a fun premise – it's a safe haven for career criminals, but there are severe penalties for conducting criminal business on the hotel grounds. Above all, there's Reeves, who reclaims his role as an action star with heartening vigor. John Wick is a bit too enamored with itself, but in fairness, there's a good deal to be enamored with.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2014