John friggin’ Wick! That’s what I wanted to shout at the end of John Wick, one of the purest pleasures I’ve had at the movies this year. On the surface, the film is basically your standard-issue revenge thriller. Keanu Reeves, back in full-blown badass mode, plays a former hitman who is dragged out of his retirement to seek revenge for a terrible slight. Seen it before, right? Well, maybe you have but it’s all in the execution, and John Wick is a slick, funny and brutally intense flick that does everything it seeks to do just right.
Reeves may be a punching bag to his many detractors but there’s one thing he can do with the best of them and that is fight. Forget The Matrix for a minute and just look at what he was able to do in last year’s vastly underrated bare-knuckle martial arts film, Man of Tai Chi. Reeves stepped behind the camera for that one and it’s clear he’s picked up a few tricks on how action sequences are supposed to look. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got some help from Chad Stahelski, who served as Reeves’ stunt double through multiple genre movies. Stahelski makes his directorial debut with John Wick and Reeves have a singularity of vision for stylish, atmospheric violence. Get ready, because John Wick is totally out of control.
John Wick was the world’s deadliest assassin, nicknamed The Bogeyman by his employers for his deadly efficiency. “He’s the guy you send to kill the Bogeyman”, so goes the legend, but Wick has settled into happily wedded bliss until illness claims his wife (Bridget Moynahan). Her final gift to him happens to be the cutest puppy in the history of cute puppies. He’s so adorable you know something terrible will happen to him. Sure enough, barely five minutes later John is roughed up by the irritating pest heel Iosef (Alfie Allen) and his gang, who steal his vintage car and kill his dog. The car is one thing, but you don’t mess with a man’s dog; especially not when that man is John Wick.
So yeah, the film is about John seeking revenge for a dog, and so what? Vengeance movies have found weaker reason for copious amounts of bloodshed than the death of a four-legged friend. Fortunately for all of us, the reasons for John’s path of destruction matter less than how he’s exacting his revenge. Reeves is an extremely fluid actor, always has been, and using the graceful techniques he learned in The Matrix and other films he turns John Wick into one of the most beautiful shoot ’em ups ever made. The amount of sheer violence is off the charts and Stahelski, who also spent a number of years as a stunt coordinator, knows how to stage a scene for maximum impact.
But there are two other aspects that make this film truly exemplary. The cast is simply phenomenal for a film of this type, and everybody seems to be on the same page with how it should be played. Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) makes for a strangely comical bad guy as Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov. He’s also Iosef’s father and when he learns his son jacked up John Wick, well, he’s less than pleased. The rest of the ensemble is equally good and just as quirky, with Lance Reddick as the manager of a hotel that serves as a hub for paid killers; Ian McShane as its owner; Adrianne Palicki is an assassin hired to take John down; and the always-great Willem Dafoe is John’s close associate, Marcus. Any other film and this would be a lineup looking to earn a few awards, but here they’re just looking to have some fun.
The other thing that makes this movie great is how Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad pull you into this weird, ridiculous shadow world. Assassins apparently have their own currency, paying for everything in flashy gold coins; they have their own hotel with oddly specific rules about killing; and personal cleaning crews to dispose of messy business. This is how you embrace a genre’s tropes and make bloody hay out of it. We know John is an unstoppable killing machine, and so do the characters populating the film. Just mentioning his name is enough to silence a potentially ugly situation or turn hardened villains into sheepish cowards. Exploring the world John is slowly being pulled back into is probably the film’s greatest highlight, outside of seeing Keanu Reeves taking a familiar role and doing something fresh with it. Fans of the genre are going to get everything they want out of John Wick, and those wondering where Reeves has been over the last few years will be pleased to know that he is definitely back.