There’s a phrase uttered in a John Wick trailer that’s circulating with more hype than the film itself, catching an exchange between Keanu Reeves’ title character and some unsavory gangster types in which Reeves blurts the line, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!” Cinematically, this is a reference to John Wick’s decision to jump back into the assassination game, but journalists are getting their guffaws out of the way by playing around with clever news titles about how Keanu claims to be back in full force with his upcoming action flick – a statement that’s supported by Keanu alone. John Wick is far from revolutionary, but that has nothing to do with its star’s presence, as he’s working with typical hitman fodder that favors kinetic visuals over sensical storytelling – your typical “PEW PEW! BANG BANG” shoot-em-up time-waster with all the stereotypical fixins.
After retiring from the contract-killing game, John Wick suffers a great tragedy when his wife dies of a lingering illness. Alone and distraught, John’s wife leaves him with a final parting gift in the form of an adorable, playful puppy who becomes his sidekick, riding shotgun by day and sleeping shotgun in his bed by night. Attempting a peaceful life, John is approached by some seedy types who take notice of his classic muscle car, asking how much they can buy it for. John reveals the ride isn’t for sale, and later that night is attacked by the goons, who steal his car and kill his dog. Being pushed past the edge, John unearths his emergency “work” materials and goes back into action, vowing to kill each and every wrongdoer, one of which who happens to be the son of his ex-employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).
When we think of Keanu, we think of the recent zen-master who’s been starring in such films as 47 Ronin and Man Of Tai Chi, yet here he’s tasked with playing a military-grade killer nicknamed The Boogeyman – not because he embodies the haunting figure, but because he’s the guy you send to kill The Boogeyman himself. It’s a clever name, the “Wick” representing his slowly burning fuse, but based on description alone, Keanu isn’t the man you’d picture to be throwing himself around like a rag-doll, eating bullet wounds and brutal beatings like only a World Champion can. But Reeves reminds us that he’s an able action star by parlaying his martial arts work into a Russian-hunting madman who keeps up with break-neck action segments. Keanu IS back, long flowing locks and all, but he’s let down by an unfocused screenplay riddled with audacity.
John Wick is the kind of movie that plays out like an invigorated arcade shooter, showcasing Wick’s laser-precision shooting in the face of nameless foes, yet once major characters find themselves in his steel sights, suddenly he’s hit with an accuracy curse that sends bullets whizzing anywhere BUT Wick’s target. There’s a particularly befuddling scene where Wick breaks into a bathhouse/club called Red Circle, where his target Iosef (Alfie Allen) is chugging champagne and enjoying the company of his sultry companions, and after not wasting a SINGLE bullet during his break-in, about five or so shots connect with nothing but glass as Iosef bolts. Honestly, I’m not sure Wick misses a shot the rest of the movie, expertly carrying himself like a James Bond-type spy, yet the dead-eye cliche becomes laughable once more prominent characters avoid Wick’s clutches in ways poor Henchman #27 never could fathom.
But for all its dialled-in dramatics and staged escapes, first-time director Chad Stahelski is able to capture all the calculated action with a sleek intensity, scoring each scene with aptly fitting soundtracks. While Wick fights his way through the Red Circle bathhouse in slow-motion, a soothing Enya-like track accompanies each assassination, yet once Wick finds himself on the lively dance floor, still killing amidst a clueless (?) crowd, wubby-wub Dubstep beats heighten pacing and jolt the action. Stahelski brings the Red Circle to life, instead of just orchestrating a generic club shootout, and while some might find Wick’s unstoppable nature tiresome, his killing-machine tactics continually ensure that John Wick remains visually enticing and effortlessly accessible.
John Wick is the kind of movie you find yourself laughing at constantly, yet after it’s all over, a harmless nature can be recognized, acting as a saving grace of sorts. What favors Stahelski’s feature debut is the fact that it’s aggressively harmless, with some fun moments smattered about an otherwise recycled screenplay. Seriously, there are some sinisterly cringeworthy lines leaking out of character’s mouths, but these are combated by sublimely understated reactions that perfectly fit dire scenarios. There’s so much promise in John Wick, and we’re constantly waiting for an over-the-top B-Movie to take form, but sadly were left with another man-on-a-warpath thriller that only garners intrigue based on Reeves’ inclusion – plus a few hammy character parts played by the likes of Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe, and Ian McShane. You won’t be blown away, but you’ll walk away unscathed, which is sadly more than you can ask for in today’s cinematic world.
John Wick is a fuse that first-timer Chad Stahelski struggles to light, but once the flame catches, it's a short fuse that burns fast and hard.