Keanu Reeves is one of modern cinema’s great oddities. No one might accuse him of being a master thespian, or even being particularly versatile, and depending upon whom one asks his acting skills range from passable to nonexistent. But once in a while, a character so well tailored to his particular strengths appears on his resume that proves why Reeves in the power player he has become today. Neo was such a role; John Constantine another; Klaatu of 2008’s The Day The Earth Stood Still remake might have been yet another had the film around him been up to snuff; and now along comes John Wick, the lead of a slick, no-frills shoot-em-up that’s sure to please fans of old school revenge flicks.
Our first introduction to Wick is the subdued, stoic Keanu we’re most familiar with, still in mourning over his wife (a there-and-gone Bridget Moynahan) whose relationship with John is illustrated in a few short, wordless flashbacks and an intimate iPhone video used to bookend the film. With the arrival - and subsequent loss - of a special pre-arranged gift, however, Keanu runs the gauntlet of human emotion and sells Wick’s turmoil like a pro. Even before a monologue late in the movie spells it out in plain and simple terms, the audience knows full well it isn’t so much the loss itself, which is tragic enough (animal lovers beware, this film will not be kind to you), but what the loss represents that drives Wick over the edge, and once that switch is flipped, any attempt at story complexity goes straight out the window to make room for as much carnage as humanly possible. In this, John Wick does anything but disappoint; Wick moves with cold, swift precision, wasting few movements and intending every shot as a kill. The camera is also kind to the audience in this respect, following the action with a minimum of obnoxious close-ups or quick editing. The film is shootout-heavy with a few hand to hand scuffles, but in such case favoring rough-and-tumble brawls over choreographed dances.
Alfie Allen as Iosef, essentially serving as a prop for which to draw Keanu from one action scene to another, is easy enough to hate, though the character isn’t vastly different from the one he plays on Game of Thrones; an entitled manchild with an inflated opinion of himself who manages to piss off all the wrong people and cause an awful lot of trouble. Adrianne Palicki appears as Perkins, a rival assassin with whom Wick shares a brief but amusing bullet-riddled “courtship” of sorts, bolstering her own action-movie credentials right on the heels of her debut as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest acquisition. Michael Nyqvist adds some welcome color to the otherwise hollow role as Viggo, Iosef’s father and Wick’s former employer. He garners probably the most of the film’s many unexpected laughs; the humor here is pitch-black, most often delivered in uncomfortable silences and single-word responses, and result from jokes about the dynamic of the “assassin’s life” - like how the question of “Where are the police during all this?” is swept out the way in but a few short sentences, establishing that even the cops know who John Wick is and want NO piece of his business.
Alongside a fanciful Ian McShane and an aggravated John Leguizamo, who are mostly accents to the film’s star-studdedness, John Wick boasts a surprising conga-line of cameos from asskickers of varying pedigrees - Keanu’s Matrix Reloaded costar Daniel Bernhardt, finally swinging fists and feet in a major motion picture again; former WWE star Kevin Nash; Mr. “Mayhem Like Me” himself Dean Winters in the odd role of Viggo’s non-Russian-speaking right hand man; even Legend of the Seeker’s Bridget Regan pops up as a sympathetic (and foxy) tattooed barmaid.
While the film revels in the simplicity of its plot, it leaves very little to spoil. As much fun as it gets watching the action unfold, major points of the story can be called well in advance, and Wick takes a few too many detours to reach his targets, though this is a minor issue next to the messiness of the film’s overlong final stretch, which could have been solved with some fine-tuning to the script. Once the main thrust of the story is concluded, the film rolls on for roughly another fifteen minutes to tie up certain loose ends, namely that of Willem Dafoe’s character. Dafoe’s Marcus is meant to have ambiguous intentions where Wick’s mission is concerned, but again, one can predict the role he plays fairly easily. The need to close the book on his part leads to several further action beats, which, while well-executed, close with a superfluous one-on-one duel with an antagonist who pretty much has a target for Keanu’s fists spray-painted on his face.
John Wick may not be deep, but it’s anything but brainless. It’s flashy without being ostentatious, and it strikes a booming emotional chord early on to get the audience in on the insanity and root for its hero without a shred of guilt. It’s not a game changer or anything meant to turn the genre on its head, but it succeeds big time at being a damn good tale of bad guys vs. not-quite-so-bad guys doing incredibly violent things to one another. And the moral is one anybody can get behind: Never mess with an assassin’s housepet.