Shoot first and ask questions later is the mantra of Keanu Reeves‘ latest starring vehicle, a film that rotates around the question of “Who is John Wick?” and eventually “What is he capable of?” Going in blind to its main plot details will likely result in a better experience as the first act coyly plays with the idea of slowly unveiling who exactly this John Wick character is. First time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski clearly had a lot of fun with the eventual reveal of the character and his past and, especially if you skip the trailers, you most likely will too.
Having just lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan), John (Reeves) is a vortex funnel of emotion. Conversations with him are as brusque as they are chilly. Telephone calls with John consist of grunts, one word utterances and silences. Condolences are met with the emotional sensitivity of a grandfather clock. You insert a coin and watch it disappear. The only sign of life comes when an unbelievably adorable Beagle puppy is dropped at his doorstep with a note from his now deceased wife. The puppy, she envisions, is John’s invitation to move on and find life anew. Even with the pup sliding around his hardwood floors, John’s still remarkably dead-faced, but might just be starting to soften. When a pair of Russian gangsters tries to intimidate him into selling them his classic car, we see a whole new side of John. He’s sassy in a delectably murderous kind of way. And he speaks Russian. And he’s no one’s bitch.
When the trio of gangsters, lead by mob boss son Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), reappear under cover of darkness to smash up his home, kill his puppy (“the horror…the horror…”) and steal his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, John winds up on the receiving end of a kicking session the likes of Riverdance. Bruised and bloody, he stares the death of hope right in its bloody, puppy visage. Even in this hazy, intentionally vague introduction to the stable of characters, we sense something violently carnal to John Wick just as we can smell the privileged cowardice steaming from Allen’s Iosef. Thinking themselves victorious, the thiefs slink off into the night. What the trio of goons hadn’t planned on was Wick retaliating, a miscalculation that becomes their blood-soaked fate.
Trying to replace VIN numbers and nab new tags, Iosef is clued into exactly who he’s messed with with a hard punch in the face. Even criminal mechanic Aurielo (John Leguizamo) won’t touch the stolen vehicle and in a move of unchecked candor, whops the little mafiosa in the schnoz for picking on the wrong guy. Iosef spouts, “My dad’s gonna do this,” and, “My dad’s gonna do that,” but even Aurielo’s smart enough to know that his top dog pops will understand his punchy reaction. When daddy Vigo (Michael Nyqvist) puts in the perfunctory check up call, all Aurielo needs to say to justify his physical gesture is to drop the news. “Your boy killed John Wick’s dog.” All Vigo can muster is an understanding, “Oh.” Cue all out war.
Once the wick is lit (pun, unfortunately, intended), the candle of vengeance burns for the entirety of the film. Action beats rage from one vantage point to another, making way for some well-timed comic beats and introducing us to a slew of characters who either share John’s former profession and or are played solely for dark colored comedy. One such example is Lance Reddick (Lost) who plays a polite, indistinctly African concierge who welcomes a recovering John with open arms. His concierge recommendation – doctors, bourbon and a telling dinner – represent the brand of deadpan comic relief John Wick offers, with much of its comic beats resting on Reddick’s narrow shoulders. The balance between balls-to-the-wall action and black comedy is often spot on and when Wick isn’t unloading clips on clips into the faces of bad guys, it simmers down to a tasty stew of remorseless, lethal laughs; a trigger-happy comedy of errors.
When John is squeezing the trigger though, the film is an absolute firecracker. Formerly working as stunt coordinators, Leitch and Stahelski have a preternatural sense of how to frame the action and move it along like a ballet. Capturing a sense of articulate entropy, they are painterly in their splooshes of blood and whirlwind of bullets. Everything is choreographed to the T and even Keanu’s wooden acting disappears when he’s a playing a one-man army, single-handedly leaving behind a body count that piles up higher than any other action flick this year. When he’s meant to emote though, yes, Keanu does still resemble Balsa wood. Thankfully, John Wick knows its strength and its weaknesses and there is very little room left for actual reflection, a fact that is both a gift and a curse to the production as a whole.
John Wick eventually admits that it is in fact just the straight-forward actioner you’ve hoped it would transcend – with an ending you could forecast from 30 minutes in – but the sheer amount of adrenaline, relentless violence and smooth gunman skills help significantly to make up for its lack of an actual soul. This being the case, John Wick is a movie that dudes – be they of the male or action junkie femme variety – will have a lot of fun with but won’t find much else to talk about aside from its ceaseless violence and well-timed dark comedy.