It’s been years since I thought seriously about Keanu Reeves.
Beyond occasional wistful thoughts of the guy who made me feel giddy at the chemistry he had with Sandra Bullock in the wonderful 1994 action film “Speed” or enjoying the intensity he brought as Neo to the groundbreaking “Matrix” franchise; to me, Reeves fun film roles were becoming a mostly forgotten memory.
Gradually replacing Reeves’ memorable film work in my mind ( and truth be told, there are a few ), were easy punchlines to amuse me, and others, about his nadir as an arguably miscast FBI agent in 1991’s “Point Break” or his big debut in 1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” … and mental images of him saying “Whoa” and “Dude” in exaggerated surfer-speak.
Thankfully, this weekend, Keanu Reeves the actor is back with a quite literal vengeance in theaters starring in the wonderfully bloody, violent and often funny thriller, “John Wick”.
In “John Wick”, Reeves plays a retired assassin of the first order for the Russian mob. As the story evolves early on, we quickly learn Wick is, or at least was before retirement, a “creme de la creme” killing machine. The kind of uber-skilled underworld assassin that fellow assassins equally feared, guardedly admired and respected.
In effectively economized flashback sequences and narrative, we learn Wick managed to successfully retire from the killing business to live a normal life with his beloved wife, Helen ( Bridget Moynihan ). However, when Helen dies from a lingering illness, Wick’s world is shattered. However, in a posthumously delivered final gift, Helen bestows upon Wick a small beagle puppy named Daisy to help him heal, have hope and learn to love again after Helen’s devastating death.
Wick tentatively learns to love the little pooch, even taking her on dangerously cathartic hi-speed road tests inside the only other cherished thing left in his life, a souped up 1969 Ford Mustang. However, in a purely chance encounter, Wick’s flashy car catches the eye of an arrogant young punk named Iosef ( Alfie Allen ) who tries to intimidate Wick into selling the car because “everything has a price”.
When Wick refuses to sell the car, Iosef and his small crew of thug pals break into his home, beats Wick to a bloody pulp and steal his Mustang. Worst of all, ultimately for them, they callously kill his dog.
When Wick is robbed of his last living connection to his wife, and his hope for a humane future; he reverts back to full-on, cold blooded assassin mode bent on revenge. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young punk Wick sets out to kill in retribution also happens to be the son of Wick’s powerful former employer, the head of the local Russian mob, Viggo ( Michael Nyqvist )
Viggo is enraged by his son’s carelessness in resurrecting his old employee’s interest in killing, only this time – the target is Viggo’s own son and anyone else who gets in his way. Soon, Wick finds himself with a $2-million dollar bounty on his head attracting the interest of his former colleague and friend, crack sniper Marcus ( Willem Dafoe ) and a beautiful, recklessly ambitious and very deadly female assassin named Perkins ( played with venomous glee by Adrianne Palicki ).
What follows is a simple and direct revenge flick that’s highlighted by an almost non-stop series of superbly choreographed, adrenaline fueled action sequences depicting Wick eliminating scores of Viggo’s henchmen with deadly efficiency. The intricate action scenes are staged mostly in awesome, seemingly uninterrupted master shots with minimal editing from other angles. Reeves’ acumen on screen with knives and guns is a blood-soaked thrill ride, each kill noticeably punctuated with a final coup de grace kill shot to the head. It’s raw, exciting, brilliantly staged – and yes, quite literally bloody fun to watch.
The film is also filled with numerous moments of understated fun and humorously funny moments. Whether it’s the seemingly incongruous politeness and decorum that surrounds The Continental Hotel that Wick checks into, run by Winston ( Ian McShane ) who’s clientele are assassins and other underworld denizens who abide by Winston’s code for the place being a quietly neutral DMZ for killers or else face a deadly check-out policy… or, a truly hysterical and superbly understated moment when a familiar police sheriff visits Wick’s home after the neighbors report a disturbance, while multiple bloodied dead bodies lie in plain sight – “John Wick” delivers some wickedly laugh out loud scenes and clever twists.
Watch for John Leguizamo in a great cameo appearance as a stolen car “chop shop” boss who helps Wick get his revenge mojo in motion. Reeves is wonderful in the role, by both immersing himself in the physicality of the action and the revenge determination of the character. His “John Wick” is a stoically “one note” personality overall, but it fits the character’s narrow focus on achieving nothing else but revenge.
“John Wick” is insanely campy, clever and exciting violent fun delivered with a knowing nod and full-on embrace of action cliches and well worn tropes of the revenge genre. It’s a throughly entertaining piece of garbage that’s great fun to embrace and enjoy amid the impending barrage of pretentious “Oscar-bait” films set to hit theaters over the next couple of months.
Here’s hoping Reeves finds a career jump start with this very entertaining film and possibility the promise of an ongoing franchise.
Just don’t kill his dog.
Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. – Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.