When The Matrix came out in 1999, it positioned Keanu Reeves as the next big action star. He had a few classics under his belt with Point Break and Speed, but this film was the one to really propel him into the action stratosphere. He was set to take over action filmmaking, except he didn’t. Outside of the Matrix sequels, the only other film in the 2000s of his that can be qualified as an action film is 2005’s Constantine. I don’t know why he suddenly vanished from action films at the ripest time for him to dive into them, but it’s beside the point now. With John Wick, Reeves has given us the Keanu Reeves action film we’ve been craving, and possibly the most definitive in his action filmography.
The plot is so simple, but so enjoyably effective. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired assassin whose wife has just died from cancer. A young puppy is then delivered to his door, a final gift from his dead wife, something to comfort him. That all ends when a young Russian mafia creep named Iosef (Alfie Allen) decides to steal Wick’s car, beat him, and kill his dog in the process after Wick declines to sell Iosef his car. So begins Wick’s descent back into the assassin underworld on a quest for vengeance against Iosef and anyone who gets in his way.
I’m not quite sure the term “bad” applies to Reeves anymore, it’s not as simple as that, because there’s something very watchable about him that can’t be pinned down with the blow-off of calling it just “bad”. He’s become kind of an enigma in that sense. Is Reeves great in this movie? I’m not sure, because he’s not really required to be “great” in this film. His blank mannerism is employed well here, he’s a vessel for violence and vengeance. The only thing Reeves needs to do to make this role work is for you to believe he can kick as much ass as his character’s reputation suggests, and you do. It’s crazy that Reeves is 50, but can still pull off fights and stunts with the spryness of a guy half his age. One character remarks that they used to call him the boogeyman, but not because he was the boogeyman – he was the man you sent to kill the boogeyman.
There’s a few key elements that elevate the film from a simple and entertaining action vehicle. One is the accomplished supporting cast this film has arranged. Alfie Allen plays an even more despicable prick than he does in Game of Thrones, and Michael Nyqvist is given the most fun character he’s had from American filmmaking in Iosef’s father and Russian mafia boss Viggo. He gets a lot of comedic moments involving profanity, but also a compelling arc. He understands what his son has done is wrong, and that Wick should have vengeance. But it’s his son, and he’s going to protect him no matter what. A better film would have explored this dynamic more tactfully, but the mere fact that it’s given consideration in a film like this is enough of a welcome surprise. Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Lance Reddick, Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane (channeling his Sexy Beastperformance) all add their own memorable turns in this heightened underworld.
Another thing that’s intriguing about the film is the cinematic world it all takes place in. There’s a nice set piece in The Continental Hotel, a neutral ground where Assassins stay while working. Gold coins stand as currency for just about anything. This film manages to set up the politics and interplay of its world easily without losing any pacing on the story and action. The cinematography by Jonathan Sela heightens the whole experience for the audience, casting an almost Fincher-like hyper-realistic aesthetic over the insane action.
Even in a year with The Raid 2, Snowpiercer, The Guest and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, John Wick still stands as some having some of the most intricately constructed action sequences you’ll see this year. (Sidenote: Can we stop and appreciate what an awesome year for action it’s been?) Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski film their fights in clean, even takes – there are deliberately as few cuts as possible, they want the audience to see and believe the punishment Wick is doling out. They don’t try to hide any of it in shaky-cam and quick cuts, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and want you to take notice. With only one film, these two have established themselves as some of the most hype-worthy action directors around, and I look forward to their TV action series Rain (also with Reeves).
After the film I was messaging a friend about it, and he summed it up quite nicely. There’s a theater where I used to live that shows midnight screenings of cult movies during the summer. He predicted they would be showing John Wick in a few years. That’s what kind of movie this is.