Scanning the user reviews of Keanu Reeves’ latest actioner, “John Wick” (2014), one would think that there are two different releases of the same movie. This impression comes from the widely divergent ratings that reviewers have given the film. Rambunctious raves (9 and 10 out of 10 stars) contrast sharply with punitive pans (1 and 2 out of 10 stars). One of the former says the movie is the “smoothest action film to come around in a long time,” while one of the latter calls it “the definition of awful.” Those who hate the film accuse those who love it of being studio shills, while the latter label the former as “the Nancy’s [sic] that want a movie with meaning.” So, of course, I had to see it and decide for myself.
Up front, I have to disclose that I am a Keanu Reeves fan, even as I also acknowledge that his acting sometimes tends towards the wooden side. Moreover, like Nicholas Cage (whom I also like), he does not always make good decisions when it comes to accepting roles that are offered to him. I’m also in the fan club (figuratively speaking) of Willem Dafoe, who has a key supporting role in “John Wick.” So let’s just say that I had certain expectations (hopes?) regarding this film, including the hope that working with Dafoe would enhance Reeves’ performance, in the same way that acting opposite Al Pacino raised the bar for Reeves in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997).
Reeves plays the title character, who is a New York hit man with an almost mythic reputation — one that makes him the “Neo” of the underworld. Using a familiar plot device, however, screenwriter Derek Kolstad makes Wick a retired mobster who must return to his former profession in order to exact vengeance. Hmmm, where have we seen this trope before?
Wick’s wife Helen (Briget Moynahan), for whom he had left the gangster life behind, dies of a chronic disease, but bequeaths him a puppy (really, a puppy) to help him move on with his life. Unfortunately, three thugs break into Wick’s house and kill the puppy in the process of stealing his 1969 Mustang. The head thug, Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), covets the car and decides to steal it after Wick refuses to sell it to him during a chance gas station meeting. He and his two lieutenants give Wick a good ass-kicking, but do not (of course) kill him.
As fate would have it, Iosef does not know that his victim is the legendary John Wick — even though Iosef is the son of Wick’s former Russian mafia boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). What are the odds? Moreover, Wick’s nickname in the Russian mob is “Boogieman” — not because he is like this mythical monster, but because he’s the one to send when you need to kill the Boogieman.
Wick’s reputation for intensity and tenacity and his history of lethality leads Viggo to beg him not to go after Iosef. He does not expect that Wick will listen to him — which he doesn’t. When Viggo sends an entire team of assassins to Wick’s home, Wick dispatches them in short order, which makes the viewer wonder why Iosef and his two wingmen were able to wipe the floor with him.
So Viggo puts a high-value, “open” hit contract out on Wick. He visits Marcus (Dafoe) personally to ask him to kill Wick — even though he knows that Marcus is the closest thing to a best friend that Wick has ever had. Strangely enough, Marcus accepts the job. Competing with Marcus for the payout for killing Wick is Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), a young killer who is willing to break all the rules (yes, the underworld has rules) to do the job.
Did I mention rules? Wick leaves his suburban home and heads to Manhattan, where he takes a room at the exclusive Continental hotel, where only underworld people are allowed to stay. At this hotel, no “business” (i.e., killing) is allowed, on pain of death. However, Viggo has sent Iosef to the nearby Red Circle nightclub as “bait” to lure Wick out of the Continental and into a trap. Will Wick be able to kill Iosef and get his revenge, or will he himself be killed by Marcus, Perkins, Viggo, or someone else?
What do you think? This is an action movie, remember. John Wick is an action hero, played by a big-name movie star. Do you really think his best friend will kill him? Also, what usually happens to the best friend of an action hero? I will stop here before I spoil the plot completely for those who haven’t seen this movie yet.
Given the heavy application of sarcasm to this review, you would be correct if you guessed that I think the plot is obvious, cliched, and full of tired action and gangster movie tropes. But you would be wrong if you assumed that I think this is a bad movie.
Once again, it’s an action film about gangsters. I don’t really expect an innovative story-line that keeps me guessing until the end. I also don’t anticipate rounded characters with believable backstories. What I do expect, however, is action — and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch deliver it. The pace picks up early in the first act and never lets up. The mythical world of the Continental, once one accepts it, provides a reasonable stage for an underworld melee. The fight scenes are full of gunplay (including lots of head shots) and some decent fighting (not, however, with the choreography of “The Matrix” or the parkour one would expect from David Belle). The associated special effects and stunts are well done. The cinematography by DP Jonathan Sela is also good and is made better by the editing by Elisabet Ronalds.
So, my take on this film is that it is an enjoyable ride. It’s a great way to spend part of an evening if you’re looking for a film with a fast pace and plenty of violent action. It will not do, however, if you’re looking for a film to discuss with your fellow cinema studies graduate students.