The title character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) strikes petrification in the minds of those who hear his name. He’s like Keyser Soze, but everyone knows he’s real. And he’s really pissed off in a picture that comes by way of stunt coordinators David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, making their directorial debuts after working with Neo himself during the Matrix trilogy.
Wick is a former hitman whose achieved legendary status. In our opening, he’s gone straight with a lovely spouse (Bridget Moynahan) who dies within the first couple of minutes. She, unlike every other character here and there’s many, does not die violently. And it is not the circumstances of her passing that zap Wick back into killing mode. Rather it’s the slaying of his late wife’s final gift to him: an adorable dog. This is our first signal that this film is not going to follow all the typical cliches of most revenge fantasies.
The pooch tragedy occurs at the hands of the spoiled son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian gang lord (an effective Michael Nyqvist) who’s worked with Wick in his glory days. The clueless son is just trying to steal Wick’s sweet ride and has no other idea who he’s up against. He shall soon discover.
What follows is a visually impactful symphony of bloody action set pieces that gives Reeves his first quality B movie material in some time. John Wick is a mix of martial arts, anime, and plain old ultra violence that is a loopy treat for most of its length.
The most memorable sequences occur at The Continental, a seriously cool underground hotel that serves as a hangout for criminals where anything goes. This picture has no more interest in realism than The Matrix and the scenes in this hotel allow the directors and screenwriter Derek Kolstad their best opportunities to let their creative juices fly. At this point in the proceedings, the atmosphere and creativity in the blood soaked battles feels fresh and alive.
By the third act, John Wick gets a bit more routine with its violent moments. Yet there’s enough here for genre fans to soak in. We have a comeback role of sorts here for Reeves. No longer looking younger than he is, he brings a rugged and menacing persona as Wick that we haven’t witnessed from him before. It suits him well. Other familiar faces popping up include Willem Dafoe as a fellow hitman and Ian McShane as The Continental’s owner.
There is one animal harmed in John Wick and a whole bunch of humans end up paying for it. The fact that it’s a really cute puppy makes it a tad more understandable. It’s mostly worth it because this film announces two new directors that hold promise. One wonders what they’re capable of when given the chance to really let their imaginations run wild.
*** (out of four)