Keanu Reeves was a staple of American cinema through the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s. Seriously, he was everywhere; from The Matrix to Bill & Ted to Point Break to Sweet November, you couldn’t spit without hitting a Reeves flick (though you shouldn’t be spitting all willy-nilly in the first place). His omnipresence is what made it so weird when he practically disappeared after 2009’s poorly received remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The former movie star seems to be back with a vengeance though in John Wick, a movie about a retired killer brought back into the life after a series of tragic events.
The movie opens with my least favorite trope: How We Got Here, in which we are introduced to Reeves’s Wick in a moment of bloody peril, before cutting to the past to spend the whole movie finding out how he got there. Turns out Wick’s wife (Bridget Moynahan, barely) succumbs to an unspecified illness early on, and after her death she send him a cute puppy from beyond the grave, hoping it will help him grieve. The dog does just that – for about a day and a half. That’s when Wick encounters a few mobbed up Russian youngsters. He makes the mistake of speaking their language (seriously, that’s his primary offense) and they retaliate by breaking into his home, stealing his car, and killing his dog. His dead wife gave him that dog!
At this point, John Wick is taking itself so seriously that I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Besides shots of a cute dog there is practically no levity in the first 20 minutes. It is as if directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch actually think their movie has something important to say about loss and the grieving process. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
It’s okay though, because the fun is about to start. The main Russian hooligan, Iosef (Alfie Allen), learns from his mob boss papa, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), exactly who he just pissed off. We know that this is where the tone shifts, because the movie immediately cuts to a mobster wearing reading glasses. I know it sounds like I’m being sarcastic just now with my praise, but this is really when John Wick gets me in its corner.
The rest of the film is a series of set-pieces wherein Wick shoots dozens of anonymous Russians in the head, punctuated periodically by quieter moments that threatened to put me to sleep. I tried to keep track of how many people Keanu shot in the head, but I lost count in the 20’s, when he killed like 15 dudes in a row who were all wearing the same black jacket/red shirt combo. Why does every kill have to end in a headshot? Only John Wick himself can answer that. But you know what? I don’t need to know why.
Once it gets going, John Wick is a ton of fun, which makes its stuffy first act even more baffling. Don’t let that stop you from seeing it though. The choreography is impeccable and Reeves seems to be doing a large number of stunts. The cast is full of great actors in small roles; Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and Clarke Peters all appear for fun bits. Need more to recommend it? How about the fact that Keanu creates a form of martial arts in this film that will forever be known as “car-kata?”
Look, this isn’t a masterpiece; the movie is incredibly violent, which won’t be for everyone, and it is incredibly emotionally manipulative. But it is a really entertaining action movie. Hell, I may see it again.