John Wick is a rarity for an action thriller. By that I mean it’s like a rare exotic animal not easily found, especially in a movie theater. Twenty-five years ago, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were unexpendable as the premiere action stars. Their popularity saw a surge in others looking to get in on the, um, action. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal did their bests, but it was a bartender nicknamed Bruno, who did a little Moonlighting before proving to the world what it was like to Die Hard, who changed the mold of the action hero. Nearly 30 years after Bruce Willis expressed his dismay on coming to California to have a few laughs—and knowing what a TV dinner feels like as he crawls through a system of ventilation ducts—the action genre has gone through several shifts, both in terms of style (see Asian cinema and the likes of John Woo and Jackie Chan in the ’90s through Gareth Evans’ and his Raid films) and influence from other media.
With Hollywood moving away from straight-up action movies with hard restricted ratings to action movies with multi-hyphenate tags and PG-13 ratings, and Matt Damon and Tom Cruise supplanting the Austrian Oak and Sly and the Family Stallone as “action thespians” (not just action stars), one has to wonder if old-school action cinema is becoming obsolete, much like the western.
Having starred in the action classics Speed and The Matrix (you could also include Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break in that mix) Keanu Reeves took the comic book plunge with 2005’s Constantine, a property that never took off as a studio franchise. Since then he’s barely made a blip on the cinematic radar. Turning 50 this year, Reeves looks to ignite the bloodlust that has been sorely lacking in American action cinema as the title character ofJohn Wick.
As with most tales fueled by revenge the plot is pretty thin. It’s all about moving the hero from one difficult situation to another as he makes his way to a face-off with the main bad guy. Sounds a lot like a video game, doesn’t it? To later learn that John Wick is cross-promoting with Payday 2, a video game about gang members conducting heists and drug trafficking in the nation’s capital, isn’t at all surprising.
Reeves plays an ex-mob hit man who is brought back into the fold not because of needing to do “one last job,” but because his car is stolen and his dog is killed by Iosef Tarasov (Game of Thrones‘ Alfie Allen). Isoef is the son of Wick’s former boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Unknowing of his past history Isoef sees Wick as an easy mark when he first lays eyes on him and his Boss 429 Ford Mustang. Now it is up to daddy to clean up his son’s mess, a not-too-easy task. Because with Wick, referred many times by Viggo as Babayka (Russian for “bogeyman”), killing comes easy.
Sixty-seven. Eighty-four. Ninety-one. No, these aren’t numbers for a Powerball jackpot. Depending on who you ask these numbers represent the total body count in John Wick. Keeping a scoresheet, I counted Reeves with 67 kills. The action is so quick and relentless it is easy to lose track. But the speed at which the movie moves is one of its greatest assets. At 101 minutes, there’s little time for dillydally. Breaks are had, of course, including Reeves calling upon some associates with waste removal to clear a party of fifteen at his homestead, or scenes at an opulent hotel where it’s not uncommon for those in the business of killing to share cocktails. Just as long as they don’t conduct business on the premises then everything is kosher. The inclusion of this setting opens up so many doors to a world that would otherwise remain closed.
David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, former stuntmen/coordinators who have doubled for Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves in the past, co-direct, and like previous stuntmen who have made the transition to the director’s chair (see Hal Needham with Smokey and the Bandit and David R. Ellis with Final Destination 2, Snakes on a Plane) they have a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The action is framed as it should and their editing style doesn’t reduce the impact of a sequence. Shootouts and fisticuffs are short and don’t drag on. So, yeah, these two know their stuff. And I am more than game to see what they have in store next.
Keanu Reeves is not much for range when it comes to acting; he’s like John Wayne in some respect. What he offers, though, is screen presence. From his dead-staring eyes to an agape mouth, as if he’s about to say “whoa” at the drop of a hat (or in this case the spent clip from a gun), Reeves plays Wick as he should: a force of nature. With a supporting cast of old friends, associates and enemies played with tongue-in-cheek paycheck please aplomb by Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Michael Nyqvist who, as a svelte Russian mob boss, lacks froth but not bite, John Wick is the perfect vehicle that serves as a phoenix rising from the ashes type comeback for Reeves, and a great way to kick off turning the big 5-oh in style. If you are a fan of action movies and don’t already have this on your radar you best add it. Or the bogeyman will be paying you a visit.
Director: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch Writer: Derek Kolstad Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!