Keanu Reeves has been badly in need of a career reboot since The Matrix trilogy ended. Nothing came from potential franchise-starter Constantine in 2005 and the years since have brought a few interesting indies such as A Scanner Darkly and Man of Tai Chi, while The Day the Earth Stood Still and 47 Ronin were flat-out flops made with blockbuster budgets. Revenge-actioner John Wick arrives on a modest budget of $20million under the direction of former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski to give Reeves the Liam Neeson treatment of kickstarting his career as an aging professional killer reluctantly forced into action, and proves there is life after Neo.
The careful introduction of John Wick (Reeves) belies the stunt history of Stahelski. After a brief prelude where we see Wick tumble out of a wrecked vehicle, the story jumps back in time to the day of Wick’s wife’s funeral. The still, considered camera reveals as man who keeps his distance from others, speaking only in the opening minutes after the funeral service when he is approached by a man named Marcus (a stern-looking Willem Defoe) who had some dealing with Wick in the past. Later, at home, Wick takes delivery of a cute dog, left for him by his wife to help him grieve. At this point you might be forgiven for thinking John Wick will be a gooey rom com that sees Wick meet a new lady via his puppy. But no.
Once Wick hits revenge mode, there’s no let up in the action set pieces.
No sooner has he been getting used to having the puppy around, he’s been threatened by Russian thugs at a petrol station who want his classic Mustang, then they turn up at his house to rob his car and kill his new best friend. End tale of mourning, start tale of bad-ass revenge. Unfortunately for Wick, this wasn’t a trio of no-name bros who stole his ride, it was led by the son of Russian mafia boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Viggo knows all about Wick having worked with him previously, and warns son Iosef (Alfie Allen – Theron to Game of Thrones fans or Lily Allen’s younger brother to the more pop cultured) that the boogeyman is now out to catch him, so body bags at the ready.
Once Wick hits revenge mode, there’s no let up in the action set pieces. Stahelski carefully crafts the initial skirmishes with none of the quick edits or jerky camera that can prevent the action being followed: he is at pains to ensure you know where shots are coming from and how Wick is evading the bullets or surprising his foes with a head shot. When the guns aren’t being fired there are cameos from John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and The Wire’s Lance Reddick, but it’s when fellow assassin Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) turns up that we get some feisty dialogue to bring out his character. There’s a lot of wry humour and the coldness of Wick’s killings means the body count shoots up, however the film looses its way when it gets past the hour mark.
In a bid to scale up the action with every set piece, the intricately-paced fights and long takes give way to faster edits and locations in which you can’t quite follow what is happening. Combined with a few leaps of faith fuelled by unlikely last minute interventions at incisive moments and John Wick suddenly goes from putting on an impressive display of well-thought-out battles interspersed with an equally-measured unfolding story to bludgeoning headshots and crashed cars without much thought for keeping the characters interesting. That’s not to say John Wick becomes unenjoyable, it’s still the best evidence that Reeves can still make the most of his awkward acting style, however what starts out as a intriguing actioner is generic fare by the end.