For all its B-movie pulp bravado, John Wick – a rather absurdly entertaining comeback vehicle for the preternaturally youthful Keanu Reeves – is best looked at not as an action movie, but as a dance picture.
Directed by Reeves’ regular stunt double Chad Stahelski, this deliriously tongue-in-cheek pop fantasia teeters on the edge of camp without any smarmy irony mucking up the works. The swaggeringly confident tone here is knowing, but not quite mocking. John Wick teases clichés while embracing them and the slender storyline exists mainly as a clothesline on which to hang one glorious, hellzapoppin’ set-piece after another – eventually reaching gonzo heights of balletic dismemberment. The movie is a wondrous spectacle of loud colors, intricate design and beautiful, fluid movement.
Reeves plays the title character, a nondescript suburban dude reeling after the recent death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan) from cancer. Her parting gift to him was an adorably yippy little beagle, and the swiftly-edited opening reel suggests a Marley & Me redux in which things are about to go horribly wrong. For it seems that Wick’s ’69 Mustang has caught the eye of a Russian gangster’s idiot son (the spectacularly loathsome Alfie Allen). So the vile progeny helps himself to John’s muscle car, his entourage of thugs beating our hero within an inch of his life and killing that cute little dog in the process. They never should have killed that dog.
Big boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) realizes his son’s mistake right away. Turns out that before his recent retirement into wedded bliss, Keanu’s John Wick was once the deadliest assassin in the history of the underworld. Or, as the exasperated father explains to his numbskull son: “He’s not the boogeyman. He’s the guy you hire to kill the fuckin’ boogeyman.” Viggo already knows he’s doomed, but puts a $2 million bounty on Wick’s head all the same.
Reeves promptly gets dressed up in his snazziest three-piece suit and busts out an arsenal he’s got hidden under the living room floor. John Wick is back in business, and the rest of the picture is a procession of increasingly outlandish, can-you-top-this gun-fu shoot-‘em-up sequences brought off with high style and impeccable clarity. It’s also very funny.
Derek Kolstead’s screenplay is an original but feels like a comic book adaptation, hinting at a larger cockeyed universe where strange supporting characters occasionally drift in as if on a lunch break from their own amazing adventures. The center of gangland activity here is a hotel called The Continental (played by New York’s Flatiron Building!) that seems to cater exclusively to assassins and accepts gold bullion instead of credit cards. All these hired killers have known each other for years, adhering to a code of professional courtesy enforced by the hotelier, portrayed with lip-smacking brio by a foppish Ian McShane with an omnipresent ascot and cocktail.
The supporting cast is really something else. You’ve got Willem Dafoe as Wick’s former mentor, who may or may not be cashing in on the bounty. “Friday Night Lights’” Adrianne Palicki is a sultry, sinister vixen, while “30 Rock’”s Dean Winters fumbles around to no small comic effect as Viggo’s thick-witted muscle-man. There are also surprise cameos by a couple of dudes from “The Wire,” and even a quick scene-stealing bit from John Leguizamo.
But really, it all comes down to Keanu Reeves. I still remember 20 years ago when Gene Siskel demanded that the Academy give Keanu a Best Actor nomination for Speed. Given Reeves’ considerable unease with saying words out loud, it seemed like a preposterous request at the time. But I’ve come around to thinking Siskel was right. If you look at acting as more than just memorizing and reciting lines from a script, Keanu is sort of spellbinding. He moves with the expressive, swashbuckling refinement of a silent film icon, and John Wick is an ideal role as he is hardly ever required to speak.
And what an athlete this guy is! Stahelski and producer Ted Leitch have made a small fortune designing action sequences for contemporary blockbusters, but they’ve never had any say in how their work was shot or edited until now. In a firmly decisive and welcome break from the hack-and-slash shaky-cam we always see in such pictures, John Wick’s elegantly choreographed fight scenes are shot wide, sometimes from head to toe as if directed by Gene Kelly, in long, unbroken takes. Reeves is a brutal gazelle in these sequences, effortlessly dispatching henchmen with an almost otherworldly grace.
John Wick is such a pleasure to watch, it’s like if Fred Astaire shot a lot of bad guys in the face.