For a while there, I thought that we’d lost Keanu Reeves. Seeing the blockbuster star of Speed and The Matrix reduced to flops like 47 Ronin was a blow to my childhood, but Reeves roars back into the action spotlight with John Wick. Easily the biggest surprise of 2014 for me, Wick is a visceral, gleefully over-the-top, and insanely fun experience which is made with the meticulous touch and care of the best Asian action films.
Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix and Point Break, as well as the stunt coordinator for 300, directs for the first time by catering to his expertise, and each lengthy fight sequence has exquisite flow and choreography which prevent any scene from dragging too long. Combined with a much more fascinating story than was required, John Wick is never anything less than captivating.
This is a film with a simple story, and it always acknowledges it. John Wick (Reeves) is a retired hitman who just lost his wife to illness. As a final gift, she left him a puppy to serve as a reminder of their undying love. When an ignorant brat in the Russian mob (Game of Thrones‘ Alfie Allen) breaks into Wick’s house, stealing his vintage car and killing the dog, the violent fire within Wick begins to stoke once again. From this point forward, the movie lets you fill in the blanks. Wick becomes a one-man wrecking crew hellbent on exacting ultimate revenge on those who disrupted his peace and eliminating all who stand in his way.
Unashamedly a B movie, John Wick never aspires to be anything more than that, going so far over the top that you can’t help but have the biggest grin on your face throughout the entirety of the film. Russian subtitles are comically highlighted to emphasize jokes or fears. Characters quip one-liners with little regard for their personal safety. Guns ring out for minutes on end (although they do reload, points for realism). If this sounds like schlock, you’d usually be right. But John Wick has its tongue so far in its cheek that the comic-book levels of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat seem fresh and dazzling.
One of the biggest strengths is the captivating world the film is able to create in its brisk 100 minutes. For being an original screenplay, Wick’s world sure seems to be like something lifted from a gritty comic book. From a hotel for hitmen which acts as an insular society, to set pieces which twist and turn like re-purposed laser tag arenas, this universe one degree separated from reality is vibrant and loud and testosterone-pumping. Without being bogged down in exposition, we get a great glimpse at how this absurd society functions, and the rules which govern the connotatively rule-less world of professional assassins.
Broken essentially into the setup and the four extended fights, each sequence features beautiful setpieces and camera work which highlights them. By focusing on the choreography, Stahelski has crafted scenes which this year’s other action films (like Jack Ryan) were unable to pull off with much success. For starters, there are a great deal of practical effects used, granting the fight scenes a sheen of realism which is quite refreshing. There was never a moment where I couldn’t tell which combatant was Reeves, thanks to very meticulous camera choices which let the fighters show off rather than resorting to quick cuts to sub in stunt doubles. In addition, the entirety of the sets are utilized as the battles unfold. In a bizarre way, some of the fights reminded of the way Goodfellas took you through every nook and cranny of an establishment.
At the forefront is Reeves, a man completely in his element as the outwardly calm hitman with the fire burning deep inside. He gives a great performance, at times humorously verbose and other times so in the zone that no words are necessary. This is the type of role Nicolas Cage wishes he could land, and Reeves fully commits to the character, somehow managing to create a character with even more physical bravado than Neo himself. He also hasn’t lost a step with the guns and fists either, as many of the takes in the action sequences were clearly performed by him. Albeit with longer hair and a beard, Reeves goes all out here and parties like it’s 1999.
In addition to Alfie Allen’s comically buffoonish antagonist, the supporting cast does a great job in authenticating the world created by the film. Michael Nyqvist (from the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is a villain more comic than evil as the Russian mob leader who realizes from the get-go that he and his men are overmatched by the pure skill and rage of John Wick. Willem DaFoe plays Wick’s old hitman friend who acts as a guardian angel of sorts throughout the film. Every actor clearly enjoys themselves throughout the film, and their enthusiasm certainly left me in the best of spirits throughout.
Unapologetically violent and campy, John Wick is completely transparent with its audience. This is not a film for everyone, and it never tries to be mainstream. But for the filmgoer who wants to feel like a teenage boy again by watching extremely capable performers shoot each other up for an hour and a half, I’d have a hard time recommending anything else. This was the most fun I’ve had at the theater in many months, and the care with which the film was made elevated it much higher for me. I actually cared about the world created for the film, and the multitude of winks and nods to the audience were very well-received. By perfectly balancing camp humor with extremely good action sequences, John Wick is a B movie of the highest caliber, one which reminds me that a film doesn’t have to have award or blockbuster aspirations in order to be satisfying and worthwhile. It’s good to see Keanu Reeves back in the zone.
This article was originally published on Ryan’s blog.