When I told my dad that I had just seen "John Wick", the new film starring Keanu Reeves as a mythical hitman forced out of retirement, he replied "You still go to Keanu Reeves films?"
"John Wick" has been receiving almost universal good praise. One magazine even ranked "Wick" second of all of Reeves' films after "Speed". So, this good word of mouth increased my interest to see the film.
And you know what? "Wick" is pretty darn good. Not great. Not second-only-to-"Speed" great. But it is a fun, intense action film and proves to be the perfect vehicle for Keanu Reeves.
Yes, dad. I do still go to Keanu Reeves' films.
John Wick (Reeves) is a retired hitman living a quiet life with his wife when she is struck by illness and passes away. After he buries her, a delivery van arrives at the house with a beagle puppy, a last gift from his wife. John is naturally mourning the loss of the love of his life (he quit doing what he does best because of her), but the puppy provides him with a distraction. Filling up his classic '68 Mustang at a gas station, the car attracts the attention of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of a Russian mobster named Viggo. That night, the son and his cronies break into John's house, steal the car, kill the puppy and beat John up. When John comes to, he decides to bring his unique skill set back to use and wreak vengeance on those responsible. When Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol") finds out what his son has done, he chastises his impetuous offspring - he has a long relationship with John Wick and knows what he is capable of - but he still enlists a coterie of associates and fellow assassins to take out John Wick.
Directed by Chad Stahleski (a former stuntman and body double for Keanu Reeves) and David Leitch (also a former stuntman) and written by Derek Kolstad ("The Package"), there is a lot of good stuff going on, just enough to renew your faith in Keanu as an action star. "Wick" seems tailor made for Reeves, highlighting the best of his skills while downplaying his shortcomings.
Keanu suffers from the same problem many action stars suffer from: he is better when he has fewer lines. His voice is too distinctive and he has great trouble hiding it in an accent, so it is best when he plays characters that speak fewer words. When he attempts a character who speaks a lot, it usually means the death knell for the film. But when he does what he does best - highly choreographed action scenes, car chases, existing on the same plane as a bunch of special effects - the film is usually a hit. "The Matrix" and "Speed" are two great examples of this. Reeves is not required to talk a lot and his characters simply execute a lot of action. In a film like "47 Ronin", his voice becomes a liability - I mean, who is going to believe this California Valley dude (I know, he's not from California, but this is the common perception of the actor) is living in feudal Japan. Apparently, no one, because the film tanked.
In "John Wick", Reeves is given few words and it works. Wick is out for vengeance and he doesn't have a lot to say to anyone who crosses his path. And a lot of people cross his path - Viggo sends a lot of his own men after Wick and also puts out a contract, capturing the attention of many other hitmen who are eager to kill off a God in their world. He meets each obstacle, employing his skill set to take them out of commission quickly.
"Wick" has a unique look; since John is in a bad place mentally, this seems to color the look and feel of everything we see. Everything is very dark and it almost seems like we are watching a series of paintings created to show us the gothic look and feel of John's world. It is an interesting choice and it works to make the story seem more special.
The narrative is also pleasingly efficient, keeping us involved by moving at a fast clip. When the action happens, it seems quick and efficient as well, but also memorable. Each encounter John has is different and provides a couple of moments causing you to flinch or exclaim.
At one point, John is forced to take up residence at the Continental, a hotel owned by Winston (Ian McShane) who operates it as a safe haven for all hitpeople, enforcing his rules with an iron hand. The hotel seems to be from another world, created as a retreat for Winston's unique clientele. The design seems stark, but also luxurious, and the look is dark and foreboding, and further reinforces my feelings about the painting-influenced design.
The supporting cast is mostly appealing and does a good job. Michael Nykqvist gives a fairly typical Russian bad guy a little life and makes him more interesting. As soon as he hears who his son has angered, he becomes angry as well, not at John, but at his son, angry that he has hit that hornet's nest. But his son is his son and he can't simply let someone kill his offspring, he does have an image to uphold. Adrianne Palicki (TV's "Marvel: Agent's of Shield", the recent reboot of “The Bionic Woman”) plays a female assassin who seems to welcome the challenge of taking on John. Willem Dafoe plays Marcus, another well-known assassin who seems to be giving John a pass because he is grieving for his wife. John Leguizamo has a brief,but memorable role as an auto stripper who instantly recognizes John’s car when Iosef brings it to him. And Ian McShane is just about always good. He has found a niche playing memorable supporting characters, giving just about any film he is in some added interest and depth. It's too bad that every film he is in isn't worthy of his expertise.
Lance Reddick (TV's "Fringe") and Clarke Peters (TV's "Person of Interest" and HBO's "The Wire) have interesting and fun cameos.
In fact, the one member of the supporting cast that doesn't work is Alfie Allen, who plays Iosef, Viggo's son. If I said to you "Russian Mobster", there is probably a certain image that immediately pops into your mind and that image is of a crass, uneducated, loud-mouthed bully who wears shiny suits and thinks he is king of the world. This is an over-used sterotype in film and television and Allen doesn't really do anything change this image. Iosef is all of these things. Thankfully, Viggo, as played by Nyqvist, is very different and seems to be trying to make the character newer and more interesting. He sort of makes up for the shortcomings his film son displays.
"John Wick" is a very good action film, a real surprise actually, because it almost seemed like this type of visceral, hard-pounding, intense display of suspense was gone. Now we can hope that "The Equalizer" and "John Wick" are the beginning of a renaissance in the genre.