No, John Wick is not some tweedy British period drama, no matter how much you want to believe the name sounds like the snooty villain of a Jane Austen period piece. John Wick is, instead, an ass-kicking return to form for one Keanu Reeves; a graceful, violent, bullet-riddled work of revenge thriller art that would, in an ideal world, supplant Neo as Reeve’s signature role. Yes, it’s that good.
At first, John Wick sounds like the kind of meat-headed bruiser someone like Jason Statham might make, with a narrative you could describe charitably as simplicity itself — it’s yet another film trading in on tired “hitman who left the game until he’s pulled back in” tropes. But what matters here isn’t the plot, but how it is told, and the way it is told is… (::compose self::) FUCKING AWESOME. Sorry for the hyperbole, but John Wick turns out to be, after a bit of a rough start, a witty, sleek and stylish variation on the wronged hitman genre.
The best Keanu Reeves movies know how to use the actor’s blank-faced Zen passivity in a way that resembles a performance and in John Wick, we have what may be his best performance since The Matrix. He’s the titular character, a hitman of such skill and focus, that he’s become a legend amongst the criminal underworld. A man of such dedication he will accomplish any task, no matter how impossible, John has managed to escape the life and carve out some semblance of peace for himself, falling in love and living in a slick modernist home with his wife. But the past is always bound to catch up with someone like John, and it certainly does — within days of his wife dying from cancer, he’s on a personal mission of revenge to take down a Russian kingpin’s spoiled brat of a son, and Hell take pity on anyone foolish enough to get in John’s way.
It’s not the most original of storylines, but it’s not the whole that matters — it’s the grace notes that makes this kind of thriller sing. Why is John seeking revenge? Because the greedy and narcissistic Ioseph kills John’s dog — a last gift from his wife — in the act of stealing John’s car. A revenge movie built around a pet? Sounds goofy, but it plays beautifully, as that dog was the last thing resembling humanity John had. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch do great work world-building, constructing a believable criminal underworld that lives in its own universe, complete with it’s own currency, mythology (the legend of John Wick) and rules (a hotel doubles as a safe zone where all contracts are rendered moot.) More than that, the filmmakers are strong storytellers visually and narratively, selling their assassin saga with economic precision, stripping the story of any fat and then wrapping in a package of slick, aesthetically alluring action setpieces.
And those setpieces — brutal, balletic, bone-crunching things of dancerly grace. Leitch and Strahelski’s background in stunt work is in clear evidence here, and Reeves is the most convincing he’s ever been as more than capable, ass-kicking anti-hero. In fact, the performances all around are strong: Reeves isn’t the most emotive of stars, but he makes John Wick believable, and he’s well matched by Michael Nyqvist as his main antagonist, Viggo. In fact, Nyqvist may just be the best part of the film, playing his villain not as your typical frothing mouthed bad guy slavering to get at the hero, but as a wry, weary and resigned professional, who’s both reluctantly drawn into the conflict, and bemused by it. It’s not often you see a villain in a film who has the good sense to try and avoid conflict with the protagonist, only to be sucked in by the hero’s sheer thirst for vengeance. It’s an intriguing angle, adding layers to Kolstad’s criminal universe and coloring in Reeve’s character’s background efficiently, aided by Nyqvist’s expertly judged, deadpan performance.
John Wick is probably one of the most sheerly enjoyable action experiences you’ll see in theaters all year. With a dash of Korean and Hong Kong cinema juicing it’s bones, a sexy and sleek look and a charismatic star performance from an actor at his most ass-kicking cool, it ends up being one of the most fun surprises of the year.
4 stars out of 5.
(Opens Oct 24th)