In this day and age it seems strange to get excited about a Keanu Reeves action movie. It’s hard to remember when the last time the Keanu killed a batch of bad guys on screen in a manner that was worth watching, but it was sadly probably a Matrix sequel. However, this weekend that all changes. Keanu is back in a well-pressed suit with a pair of handguns and doling out old school action in a manner most audiences will have assumed died out long ago. Helmed by a pair of longtime stuntmen and stunt coordinators, John Wick sucks out all of the CGI and tiresome over-plotting that’s dogged down the genre for years and serves up piping hot servings of classic action movie thrills like it’s still 1999. The film is an absolute blast, executing all of its B-movie bliss with no fuss and even less muss.
The best part of John Wick is the welcome simplicity. Keanu plays the titular John whose wife dies in the first scene and then quietly develops a relationship with a dog, only to have a young punk Russian gangster (Alfie Allen) beat him up, kill the dog, and steal his 69 Mustang moments later. From there Allen gets a stern lecture from his mob boss father who reveals that John Wick was once the deadliest assassin in the biz before retiring. All he needed to return from the shadows gun-blazing was a good excuse and now he’s got all the motivation he needs to take their entire crime organization down. That’s pretty much the entire plot, it plays out in less than 20 minutes of screentime, and you could count the lines of dialogue from most scenes on one hand. From there, co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski stage one spectacular action scene after another in a straight burn to a big climax that actually feels climatic. It all sounds simple because it is, and these days, simple feels special.
Keanu is back in a well-pressed suit with a pair of handguns and doling out old school action in a manner most audiences will have assumed died out long ago.
Leitch and Stahelski are clearly action movie aficionados. Aside from their background banging heads in the stunt game (a background put to excellent use here in a collection of all-physical, all-the-time set pieces), they’ve delivered a movie with the set up of a 70s exploitation revenge movie, the mysterious morally questionable stoic hero of Clint Eastwood Western, the barebones writing efficiency of a vintage Walter Hill picture, and the brutal handgun action of John Woo’s Hong Kong days (minus the slow-mo and artistic pretensions). It’s a blender full of elements from the genre’s greatest hits that comes together in a brilliant bit of B-movie entertainment that strives for nothing else and surpasses expectations. There’s not an ounce of fat on the screenplay, which is a work of constant forward momentum. In lieu of needlessly overwrought backstory, the filmmakers make a running gag of characters referring to a code of honor and shared histories that never explained. You’ll giggle at the fact that no one will reveal the secrets behind the story, but never feel like you’re missing anything since everything you need to know beyond who’s shooting who is cleverly implied.
The overly and comedically efficient script means there’s more time for Keanu to smash things and shoot people, which he does oh so well. There’s no wire fu or dance-move choreography here, it’s all gunfights and fisticuffs. The kind of action scenes that look brutal and leave a visceral impact because it’s so clearly stuntmen, pyrotechnics, and squibs behind the carnage. Given that he “knows kung-fu,” Reeves is able to handle this stylized street tough action with ease, clearly doing most of his own stunt work and delivering some delightful blasts of onscreen violence. Leitch and Stahelski shoot it all with style, tripods, and steadycams. No shakey nonsense here. You can see everything and it looks damn good. By playing one of those mysterious killers of few words, Keanu even delivers a solid performance given that very little emoting is required (that’s where his performances tend to fall apart). All he’s got to do is look cool, fire guns, and beat up people/objects, which is exactly what he does best. Surrounding him are a wealth of excellent character actors like Willem DaFoe (Shadow Of The Vampire), the always fantastic Ian McShane (Deadwood), and Michael Nyqvist (the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies). They do all of the heavy lifting in terms of drama, comedy, and acting, giving the film plenty of weight and letting Keanu worry exclusively about his ass-kickery.
To a certain extent, John Wick falls into the recent genre of “old action stars coming out of retirement” movies, but plays far better than most. That’s primarily because Leitch and Stahelski aren’t just bringing back a familiar face, their bringing back lost style of action filmmaking and doing it well. Watching John Wick doesn’t feel like seeing the latest Hollywood action flick. It feels like you’ve somehow managed to find an old action movie from the 90s that you missed the first time and a damn good one at that. Hopefully audiences starved for vintage adrenaline pumping handgun carnage will show up in droves. If this sucker is successful, Leitch and Stahelski could very well end up being new saviors of the genre. Superhero movies are fantastic and all, but it’s nice to see old school action executed this well and this harshly. It’s been a while since an American action movie came along with a little dirt under its fingernails (probably Taken, and even that was technically a French production), so hopefully this sucker is successful enough to help bring the genre back. It’s about damn time.