Keanu Reeves was nobody’s pick to be an action star in the 2010s, especially after his post-Matrix lost period where people didn’t know what to cast him in. But this recent career resurgence is notable because it has already produced two bona-fide genre movie gems. The first, last year’s Man of Tai Chi, saw Reeves step behind the camera for the first time, showing off all the neat tricks he picked up from Yuen Woo-ping on the Matrix films. The result was a muscular martial arts throwback in which Reeves showed off solid, old-school directing chops and, as suited goon Donaka Mark, considerable bad-guy charisma. The second one, the recently-released John Wick, is a great, explosive piece of gun-fu which proves that the second wind Reeves has gotten as an action movie star is anything but a fluke.
The story’s a twist on an old favourite: retired elite assassin John Wick (Reeves) just wants to enjoy the good life, but one day finds himself widowed and, given his old job, completely alone in the world. Thanks to some crafty pre-death planning, John’s now-deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan, in what basically amounts to a glorified cameo) arranged to give John a pet dog so he can “mourn unalone.” But the benefits of this zootherapy would be short-lived: Wick crosses paths with sociopathic brat Iosef Tarasov (Michael Shannon look-alike Alfie Allen), who wants to buy his pristine-looking muscle car. Wick refuses, to which Tarasov responds with the impressively awful trifecta of breaking and entering, battery, and canicide. Wick’s course then becomes clear: kill the man who kicked him while he was down (literally and figuratively) and all who interfere with that goal. This worries Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), Wick’s old employer. In an effort to save his son, the elder Tarasov then begins to send hordes of entirely movable objects in an attempt to stop the unstoppable force that is John Wick.
The film’s universe is shaped by negative spaces. Very little is outright said concerning the vastness of the influence of this particular group of mobsters and assassins. The film does offer hints of the greater machinations at work in subtle ways; secret clubs, special doubloons, seemingly omnipresent old friends and rivals. In one scene, a police officer descends upon the Wick household to investigate a noise complaint. When the cop sees an unconscious figure on the floor, instead of arresting Wick, he simply asks him if he’s working again. It’s comedy as world-building. And while the film is humorous (Nyqvist’s monosyllabic reaction to discovering who his son messed with is particularly noteworthy), this isn’t an action-comedy. John Wick mines its funny moments organically from the inherent goofiness of action film tropes. But it’s delivered with such unrelenting force and precision that it becomes enthralling rather than distracting.
Wick’s characterization in the film is what sets it apart from other action films of its ilk. Every movie will try to have you believe that their protagonist is a major badass. Over the course of his career, Wick appears to have transcended mere badassdom, ascending instead to the realm of folkloric, Grim Reaper-like figure, the very embodiment of doom. Tellingly, Nyqvist’s gangster continuously refers to him as “babayega,” or boogeyman. The fact that he was able to retire in relative peace made him a living legend. Thus this story, that of a legendary figure once again making his presence known through brute force, becomes a tale of unquellable holy wrath. There’s an apocalyptic inevitability to the events of the film. The die is cast the second that Allen lays eyes on Keanu’s totally sweet ’69 Mustang. By the time Allen bloodies Reeves and dispatches his canine friend, it is clear to all involved that it is not a matter of whether or not Allen will die, but how and when.
The action photography on display is stupendous. It follows the basic recipe that many action movies can’t quite seem to grasp: don’t cut motions in half, don’t shy away from impact, and follow though. First time directors/veteran stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski know that the successful execution of a practical action sequence is dependent on spacial clarity. Every bullet hit registers with the impact of a hay-maker. The stunt list reads like a laundry list of action-junkie pleasure points: automobile pinball, gunfights with escalating weaponry, creative use of location and props, shadow-lit fistfights. Everything is shot with the precision of someone who knows exactly what they’re looking for.
Many of the best action movies of the recent past haven’t even had so much as a theatrical release. One of the highlights from last year, Isaac Florentine’s Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, went straight to video on New Year’s Eve. John Wick, in addition to being very good, is doing its part in keeping this particular strain of action movies alive in Hollywood. If this film’s success leads to more movies like this, where a deep knowledge and respect for stuntwork is built right into the framework, mainstream action cinema will be much better off for it.
John Wick is currently playing in theaters everywhere.
Directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Bridget Moynahan; 101 minutes.