Keanu Reeves plays a vengeful ex-hitman who shoots, pummels and skewers his way through NYC’s Russian mafia to get to the men responsible for stealing his car and killing his dog in “John Wick”, which takes place mostly in seedy underground nightclubs and a rustic hotel that provides safe haven for folks of his ilk — basically, places that exceed law enforcement’s grasp. There’s very little to decrypt here as far as the plot goes, and little reason to dwell on the particulars of Wick’s association with the organization that has betrayed him (led by a comically arid Michael Nyqvist), who he proceeds to execute one by one with such deft trigger-work that it’s hard to tell where his hand ends and the gun begins.
The culprit responsible for this mess is the son of Nyvqvist’s mob boss, played by Alfie Allen. If you think you hated his “Game of Thrones” character Theon Greyjoy, wait until you get a load of Iosef Tarasov, a spoiled brat who just happens to tangle with the wrong guy. His arrogance and ignorance are equally epic: first he taunts Wick, then breaks into his home where he has his goons take him down with a baseball bat. But his real mistake is clubbing to death the puppy that Wick’s recently deceased wife (a brief appearance by Bridget Moynahan) had given him as a last gift from her deathbed so that he wouldn’t be left to grieve alone.
You pretty much know the rest of the story: dangerous guy comes out of retirement, cracks open his arsenal and goes to town on all the scumbags that deserve to die, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake as he drops goon after goon while the doofus who spends most of his time getting drunk in a bathhouse somehow manages to elude him. But while logic is lacking, the action sequences are some of the most well-choreographed that I’ve seen since “The Raid: Redemption”; it’s not like a lot of films where the fights look like they were created in the editing room, and boy, is it impressive. Not a surprise, considering it’s the directorial debut of stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski (Reeves’ stunt double in “The Matrix” films).
The first major shoot-out finds Wick confronting a squad of assassins in his home, and Reeves moves like a ninja as he delivers more close-range head shots than all the rest of this year’s shoot-’em-ups combined. A later showdown in a nightclub punctuated by flashing lights and thudding techno reminded me of Antoine Fuqua’s “The Replacement Killers”, only with a much higher body count; the film’s less kinetic moments bear shades of the noir-thriller “Payback” with its dark sense of humor and surreal atmosphere.
But while “John Wick” blows us away in its first half, the film has little else to offer after that. Save Willem Dafoe entering the fold as Wick’s old buddy Marcus (the wild card of the film), the proceedings begin to fizzle into a series of formulaic events that culminate in a less-than-explosive ending, and perhaps it’s because Reeves and Stahelski have raised the bar so high that anything short of sheer brilliance in the final act would just appear typical by comparison.
The supporting cast proves an interesting stew of talent, as ancillary characters make their way in and out of the movie: Ian McShane’s all-knowing gatekeeper Winston presides over the “etiquette” of the underworld from the Continental Hotel’s cozy, hit men-exclusive bar; Adrianne Palicki plays a femme fatale willing to break the rules for the right price; John Leguizamo’s no BS automobile fence sets the young Tarasov straight when he shows up with Wick’s ’69 Mustang and a shit-eating grin on his face.
This is a solid action film, no doubt, and there’s no one better than Reeves to play the part of Wick, physically and otherwise. But we’re left a little numb after the dust settles; lack of substance is expected for this type of flick, of course, but the revenge aspect could’ve benefited from a smidge more emotion. A lot like last month’s Denzel Washington-starring “The Equalizer”, which also found a highly skilled tactician seeking revenge on the Russian mob, “John Wick” is an ambitiously violent film chock full of “hell yes” moments and promises of retribution. But even though “Wick” technically crushes Washington’s movie in the action department, Derek Kolstad’s script is far less consistent and lacks the heart to sustain the same level of intensity. That said, I’d gladly pay to see a sequel.