Reeves Ignites Gritty, Self-Aware Vengeance in 'John Wick'

Directed by: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: A-

47 Ronin ended up being a disappointment for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest was the botched return to action for Keanu Reeves, whose ho-hum performance as a thwarted samurai gets lost in a mess of computer-generated waywardness and script meddling. His brand of earnest stoicism has frequently worked to his advantage in other roles at various points in his career, yet he's struggled to find the right niche for his talent over the past ten or so years. Then, Man of Tai Chi emerged on the scene trumpeting his enthusiasm for the B-movie and martial-arts spectrum, including a performance from himself as a mysterious and intimidating underground player with fighting skills. Turns out, Reeves didn't need the scope and grandeur of another Hollywood-budget franchise (another Matrix, if you will) to mount his cinematic riposte, but the smaller-scale, hard-hitting energy of tailored combat and no-nonsense gunfire. That's where John Wick enters the picture.

After viewing the initial trailer for the directing debut of stunt designers/coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there's an immediate hook that already makes one grin at the film's premise, where a trained killer sets out for revenge against the home invaders who killed his dog. Now, clearly, there's more to it than that: that skilled assassin once belonged to an organized crime ring and removed himself from it after falling in love with his wife (Bridgette Moynahan), to which the dog served as a way of soothing the pain after her death. Therefore, the dog's demise -- which was caused by the son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), of one of the organization's key players, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) -- signifies more than just a small spark of revenge in John's eyes, but a call back to the world he abandoned for something personal. Yet, the playful idea that an ex-assassin's tearing through the underworld based on vengeance for his dog's murder carries through the rest of the story, even playfully referenced throughout ... though it's far from a joking matter.

The script from B-movie action writer Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber; The Package) concentrates on telling an empathetic story of John Wick's "retirement" at first, succeeding more than expected from the premise. It makes you really feel for Wick's anguish and the unwanted solace that his new companion offered before a very carefully-shot death scene, legitimately fueling his resolve to enter back into the world through an unpretentiously heartbreaking backstory. Once he's drawn back in, Kolstead's humor and world-building take over, crafting an eccentric network of espionage that's different from the typical stiff cloak-and-dagger assassin material, developing a stylish outlook on currency, safe spots, and guidelines. See, everybody knows John Wick, and not in a fearful kind of way: entering old haunts, especially the regulated Continental hotel, and reaching out to old contacts works almost like a fond reunion than a bunch of people brushing elbows with the boogeyman, enriching John Wick's character through their sympathy and esteem while proving that he wasn't exactly a heartless machine in his previous life, despite his lethal reputation.

That reputation is justified, though, observed in Wick's first combat situation after being out of the game for a while. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make it abundantly clear that they aren't interested in flashy clouds of missed bullets and elaborate martial-arts choreography filled with blocked punches and kicks, instead emphasizing precise brutality through their quasi-realistic grasp on violence. The resulting action in John Wick is sharp and bloody, a fusion of strategic grappling in the vein of judo and jiu-jitsu with gunplay that purposefully interweaves with Wick's maneuvers, with Keanu Reeves conducting the bulk of the physical work himself. The accomplishments of the action don't begin and end with the violence, either: Stahelski and Leitch also display an impeccable eye for the geography of highly-stylized locations, paired with judicious-yet-colorful cinematography that maintains a lucid viewpoint on the ramifications of what's going on. A fierce blue-tinted scene in an elaborate nightclub, powered by a pair of sublime electronic musical tracks and clear admiration for the work of John Woo, alone cements the film's shrewdness as a pure action film.

The calculated disposition of an assassin with a broken heart turns out to be an excellent vessel for Keanu Reeves' range, playing to his strengths with a character who exhibits restrained emotionality and picks and chooses his words very carefully. Wick's stoicism doesn't drag the film's personality down, though: his, uh, colleagues elevate the tempo with well-drawn and capricious characteristics, from Adrianne Palicki's formidable poise as Ms. Perkins to Willem Dafoe's enigmatic camaraderie as Marcus. Nothing's really cut and dry among them, not even with Wick's nemesis and ex-employer, Viggo, whom The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist filters a healthy amount of idiosyncrasy through his recital of Russian limericks and his prevalent, almost sympathetic fear of the ex-assassin. Their enigmatic motives and crossings over the lines of honor end up shaping the atmosphere more than the anti-hero's own actions, as Wick's path towards the undeniably unlikable Iosef transforms into an elaborate string of responses to how the criminal underworld corrects any faults in its ecosystem.

Style certainly triumphs over substance in John Wick, sure, and it's not completely devoid of action-movie cliches; a handful of questionable missed bullets and dubious Bond villain-esque stalls in executing plans keep the plot alive longer than it should, which stand out more given the dogged pragmatism Chad Stahelski and David Leitch telegraph everywhere else. The meticulousness and general panache crafted from start to finish far exceed those misgivings, however, where the straightforward poeticism behind Wick's story -- smartly encapsulated in an affecting framing device -- reaches a full-throttle and cathartic conclusion for his tormented disposition. Whether this marks a new renaissance in Keanu Reeves' career remains to be seen, but it goes to show that his modest demeanor and enthusiasm for the genre can still thrive with the right kind of role throttling him forward, amounting to one of the sharpest and winsome action films to emerge over the past couple of years.

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