As my good friend and fellow dweeb Nick Allen once pointed out: middle-aged killing machines have become the new normal in contemporary Hollywood actioners. Initiated by Liam Neeson’s crusty John Mills in Taken, and expanded upon by Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Denzel Washington (The Equalizer), and Pierce Brosnan (The November Man), wizened bruisers have suddenly become as ubiquitous as the young pups running around in superhero gear.
This cinematic canon gets a new member with the film John Wick. The titular part is inhabited by Keanu Reeves – who, you guessed it, knows kung-fu – and profiles an ex-mob enforcer drawn back into the criminal life after experiencing a brutal home-invasion. A simple story that is for the most part gloriously executed, the film thrives on the kineticism of its action, the appealing hook of its world, and finally a pitch-perfect harnessing of Reeves’ authoritative physicality. It’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year.
Utilizing a simple flashback structure, John Wick establishes its archetypal credentials very quickly through the introduction of Reeves’ character. Lying broken and bleeding in a lonely looking part of the Big Apple, we watch as Wick longingly watches a video of his wife on his iPhone, an act which easily suggests that the lovely lady is long gone.
These details, which establish Reeves as the film’s proverbial man with nothing to lose, are relatively insignificant; as is the slight that eventually sets Wick on his bloody road to retribution. Essentially, a weasely creep named Iosef (Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones) decides to break into Wick’s plush New Jersey home, after spotting him and his “ride” at a gas station. This little thug’s goal is simple: he wants Wick’s sweet ride for himself; but he ends up beating the man nearly to death and killing his dog (who is one of the cutest little beasts you’ll find on screen this year) in the process. This of course brings Wick back into the game. However, in order to get vengeance he is forced to confront a large section of the Russian mafia, as Iosef is the only son of crime boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).
As one can surmise, John Wick is a ridiculously cliched film, featuring some of the oldest tropes of its genre. Not only is Reeves your archetypal, monosyllabic antihero, but he is driven by the death of his seemingly saintly wife. Where have you heard that before?
Strangely enough none of this matters, as John Wick proves its worth through its atmosphere and through its narrative thrust. The action sequences for instance are propulsive, especially during a scene where Wick pursues Iosef through a swanky yet still sleazy New York nightclub, and cuts through a number of mafia baddies with brilliant gun fu ferocity. Reeves obvious athleticism, so apparent in much of his work, comes across strongly here once again – at least to the uninitiated. All of the action is pretty brilliant, containing just enough fluidity to be powerful on the big screen, yet still feeling somewhat grounded in reality.
The action can be best described as complimentary to the world that director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad concoct. An alternate universe of the hyperreal, John Wick is defined by the idea that there is an immense criminal infrastructure existing underneath the facade of society. What this entails is never fleshed out as eloquently or comprehensively as something like The Matrix. However, it does lend itself to some hypnotic and humorous moments, such as where Wick checks into a hotel solely reserved for hitmen, which comes complete with its own on-call doctor.
All of the actors seem to be having a ball in this deranged reality, with several big-name actors popping up in bit parts, and with several members of The Wire’s venerable cast appearing for good measure. Willem Dafoe plays another hitman who appears to be close with Wick (or at least on a first name basis), and seems to be enjoying himself immensely. A similar cord is struck by Lance Reddick, who plays the manager of the hotel where Reeves stays and provides some effective dry humor.
However, this is still Reeves film, and the actor gives a commanding performance. Stripped down to mainly utilizing his body, the actor’s typical reticence and aloofness is paired well with the role of Wick. And Stahelski’s film is congruent with what Mr. Allen noted about its unofficial genre. The middle-aged lead characters of John Wick and other titles mentioned above are emblematic of patriarchal wrath, which targets youthful cretins that erroneously believed they were down for the count. In John Wick this raging anger is realized beautifully, and when Reeves’ killer snaps at the end, screaming “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!” you realize that the statement is true for both Wick and Reeves. Each man has returned to where they belong, and to do what they do best.