There are no good guys in “John Wick,” but there are some great actors working alongside Keanu Reeves in his darkest and most tormented role yet: a stunningly lethal contract killer who goes on a rampage after a Russian thug murders his dog. Yes, his dog. If you can stomach the setup, then the rest is pure revenge-movie gold, as Reeves reminds what a compelling action star he can be, while the guy who served as his stunt double in “The Matrix” makes a remarkably satisfying directorial debut, delivering a clean, efficient and incredibly assured thriller with serious breakout potential, thanks in part to Summit’s simultaneous Imax release.
That unsung hero is Chad Stahelski, the stunt guru who stepped into Brandon Lee’s shoes on “The Crow” and spent the next two decades absorbing all the behind-the-scenes filming lessons that make “John Wick” such a technically impeccable actioner. (Stahelski and longtime stunt collaborator David Leitch approached the project as a team, but only Stahelski ultimately received directing credit from the DGA, while Leitch is credited as a producer.) Whereas the tendency among many other helmers is to jostle the camera and cut frenetically in the misguided belief that visual confusion generates excitement, the duo understand what a thrill well-choreographed action can be when we’re actually able to make out what’s happening.
And that’s why Reeves serves as just the right star to play Wick, a short-fuse antihero whose ridiculous moniker (borrowed from screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s grandfather) clumsily conveys his explosive temper. There’s nothing clumsy about the actor who plays Wick, however, as Reeves’ lithe physicality enables extended sequences in which he moves athletically through an environment full of adversaries, shooting, stabbing or otherwise immobilizing them one at a time.
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Since brutally efficient action sequences are in such short supply these days, the fact that “John Wick” delivers no fewer than half a dozen — home invasion, hotel room, Red Circle club, church parking lot, Brooklyn safehouse, grand finale — more than excuses Kolstad’s lame-brained script. Basically, the idea is to mislead audiences into believing that Reeves’ character is a mild-mannered family man, compressing the preceding few months of personal tragedy into a montage in which Wick visits his wife (Bridget Moynahan) in hospital, attends her rain-drenched funeral (where former colleague Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, makes an ominous appearance), and weeps upon receiving her final gift: a pre-trained puppy named Daisy.
This intro doesn’t exactly position Wick as someone Russian mobsters would refer to as “the Boogey Man,” but of course, everyone in the theater already knows what’s coming. Far from fooling anyone, this mopey opening merely provides an awkward bit of melodrama to get past before the carnage can commence — which it does soon enough, when “Game of Thrones” goon Alfie Allen, playing the bratty son of a Russian crime boss, improbably shows up at a rural gas station and offers to buy Wick’s prized 1969 Boss Mustang. When Wick declines, the punk and his friends decide to break into his house and help themselves, beating Wick with baseball bats, smashing his things, snapping the poor dog’s neck and taking the Mustang on their way out.
While killing a dog hardly seems enough to justify the meticulously orchestrated mayhem that follows, we should at least be grateful the pic doesn’t impose some greater emotional trauma upfront (like forcing us to witness his wife’s rape or murder, a la “Death Wish”). The script waits until this moment, when Iosef takes the stolen Mustang to the shop to have its plates changed, before revealing Wick’s reputation. The fence (a tough-looking John Leguizamo) nervously refuses to help, notifying Iosef’s relatively civilized mobster dad, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, looking suave and collected in the face of certain death), that his son has awakened a monster.
One almost feels sorry for Stahelski, who’s been given such a soggy pulp screenplay to work with, and yet it’s during these B-movie scenes that we start to feel what he can bring to the table. In terms of material, “John Wick” is nothing special, but there’s a suave elegance to the way Stahelski and Leitch approach this thoroughly generic project, seizing the opportunity to deliver some pretty spectacular setpieces along the way.
The result, photographed in sleek, steady-hand widescreen by Vilmos Zsigmond protege Jonathan Sela, looks more like recent Nicolas Winding Refn pics than relatively sloppy studio fare (right down to its cool, neon-lit shootouts), relying on a mix of heavy metal and electronic music from the likes of Marilyn Manson, Tyler Bates and Kaleida to generate propulsive forward energy. Needless to say, Iosef and his thugs picked the wrong guy to mess with. But their mistake wasn’t stealing Wick’s car and killing his dog. Their mistake was not killing Wick when they had the chance.
As written, everyone seen onscreen is bad to some degree — from the lethal minx (Adrianne Palicki) who accepts a $4 million contract to kill Wick to the corrupt Catholic priest (Munro M. Bonnell) who protects the vault where Viggo stores his valuables — which means every bullet fired potentially stands to make this corrupt underworld a better place. Evidently, evil is relative, and some of these killers are more supportive of Wick than others, including Dafoe’s Marcus, a fellow sharpshooter who intervenes whenever Wick finds himself in a particularly tight spot, and Ian McShane, who plays the manager of the film’s most inspired location: a high-end hotel for assassins where the house rules demand that no killing be done on premises.
Clearly, “John Wick” isn’t set in the real world, but rather in the sort of heightened parallel dimension that gamers use for target practice, where they must constantly be on their guard as goons pop up from behind objects and around corners. That’s effectively how we experience the better part of the movie, tagging along as Wick hunts down Iosef and brings down Viggo’s entire criminal organization in the process. With long greasy hair and wispy facial hair, Reeves isn’t nearly as tough or intimidating as your typical revenge-movie antihero, but his star persona helps to make the film more fun — or at least a lot less bleak — than downbeat classics as “Rolling Thunder” and “Get Carter.” All that violence won’t bring Daisy back, but it helps to clear enough space in Wick’s cold-blooded heart for another dog. Maybe he’s not so bad after all.