Keanu Reeves won’t go down as a great movie actor, but he can be an effective one. He could have vanished after the two Bill and Ted movies, like his costar Alex Winter, but he remade himself as an action star in Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix, and he did character work in the little-seen A Scanner Darkly and was a romantic lead in The Lake House. But then there are the Matrix sequels, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and last year’s bomb 47 Ronin, all of which could have killed the careers of actors. Somehow Reeves keeps bouncing back, this time with his new movie John Wick.
It helps that the first-time director of Wick, David Leitch, was a stuntman who doubled for Reeves. He knows his actor and gives Reeves a chance to shine, and Reeves delivers. The movie’s plot itself is derivative, going back to John Boorman’s classic movie from almost 50 years ago, Point Blank (which was later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson).
Wick (Reeves) is a hitman who retired for love of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan in a criminally short role). When she dies from an illness, he’s left to try to deal with his grief, though after her funeral a gift arrives for him from her as a way to overcome his mourning. Wick has a classic Mustang muscle car, and while out for a drive one day the car grabs the attention of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He tries to buy the car, but Wick refuses to sell.
That night Iosef and his posse break into Wick’s house. They beat Wick unconscious before they take the car, and they also destroy his gift from his wife. When he wakes up and finds what Iosef did, Wick is devastated. He learns Iosef’s identity from Aureilo (John Leguizamo) who runs the chop shop where Iosef tried to sell the car. Aureilo had recognized the car and refused to have any part of it. Tarasov use to employ Wick, and when he learns what his son has done he makes his displeasure very clear to Iosef. Iosef says sarcastically, “What is he, the boogeyman?” “No,” his father responds, “he’s the man you call when you want to kill a boogeyman.”
This movie could be classified as a thriller subgenre called “Crime Fantasy.” The crime bosses and assassins are wealthy and live upper-crust lives. They go about their business in tailored suits (dark colors only). They even have their own hotel, the Continental, on whose premises a strict safe zone is enforced. It’s also a world where there are no cops. One does show up early in John Wick, but he knows who John is and quickly leaves the scene. In a Crime Fantasy, style replaces substance, and John Wick does have plenty of style.
It also has plenty of violence. The first thing Tarasov does when he discovers he’s up against Wick is to send a large hit squad to Wick’s house to take him out. Needless to say, it’s Wick who is the only one left standing in the end. An example of the style of the movie is that Wick lives in a modernist home where many of the walls are windows, allowing the director to compose an exciting sequence. The old phrase might be re-written: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t shoot guns.
Reeves handles the dry wit of the role as well as he does the action as he fights his way through Tarasov’s army to exact his revenge. The supporting cast is outstanding, with Willem Dafoe as a fellow assassin who has an agenda of his own, Lance Reddick (“The Wire” “Fringe”) as the phlegmatic hotel manager at the Continental, and Ian McShane as the Continental’s owner and enforcer of its safe zone. There’s also Adrianne Palicki (currently on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) as an assassin who doesn’t mind bending the rules.
If you like the crime fantasy genre, John Wick is a good example of it and it has its pleasures. While Wick is gravely injured during the movie, it takes a lot to kill him. You could say the same for Keanu Reeves.