After the likes of 47 Ronin, which was approximately 47 times less good than Ronin, and Generation Um, a film that bored its own title, Keanu Reeves is about due a comeback. But what exactly does he have to come back to? An actor of undeniable charisma but limited range, he’s always worked best as the innocent abroad amid high-concept action (Point Break, Speed, The Matrix). But at 50 that’s as unlikely to fly as a Bill & Ted threequel.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, stunt experts who, between them, have worked on – and in – The Bourne Legacy, Fight Club and The Matrix (Stahelski was Reeves’ double, and even replaced the late Brandon Lee on The Crow), from Derek Kolstad’s much-feted script, John Wick is a brutally simple revenge flick that provides a brutally simple solution. By casting Keanu as a taciturn man well into the second act of his life, a kick-ass Carlito drawn back to the flame, it gives the actor his best role in years.
Whether mourning his recently deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), or skidding his Mustang 69 around an airfield, Wick is the kind of moody SOB for whom a brown leather jacket seems positively Hawaiian. Helen sends him a post-mortem present to help him move on: a puppy cute enough for a Best Supporting Canine Oscar. With his immaculate bachelor pad and Alvaro Siza coffee table books, you’d be forgiven for thinking Wick was an architect, rather than an ARCHITECT OF DOOM.
Unfortunately for Russian gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen), who breaks into to Wick’s house and ruins his recovery, it’s the latter. When Iosef reports back to daddy Viggo (the excellent Michael Nyqvist), his response is a priceless: “Oh.” Wick used to be an assassin called “The Boogeyman”, Viggo explains, who once killed three men with a pencil. “John will come for you and you will do nothing because there is nothing you can do,” he says channelling Taken. Meanwhile, Wick prepares to go back to work...
Wick is the next-gen version of ’80s killing machines such as Arnie, Sly and Seagal – as well as someone who’s clearly had a consultation with Daniel Craig’s tailor. He gets the job done with the minimum of fuss (and dialogue), even cleaning up after himself. The film’s – and possible the year’s – action highlight has him shooting, stabbing and slamming his way through an entire club.
Stahelski and Leitch call Wick’s technique “gun-fu” (not to be confused with gun-kata from Equilibrium, or gymkata from, er, Gymkata), but mostly it involves sidling up to people and nonchalantly blowing their brains out. Less gun-fu, more screw you.
Although the fight scenes are as cool and crunchy as compacted snow, it’s the world around Wick that appeals most. All chrome, concrete and neon, it looks like something drawn straight from a brilliant graphic novel. Helen’s funeral is a sea of black umbrellas clustered together in the endless grey, as if the rain has leached away all the joy. The sound design is just as crucial; the lonely beep of Wick’s alarm clock bleeding into the electronic heartbeat of Helen’s life-support machine, for example.
But it’s not all death and deluges. Wick rocks a brand of mordant monosyllabism that makes his every grunt seem positively Wildean. “Viggo will kill me!” begs a penitent cowering from his wrath; “Uh-huh,” is the perfect give-a-shit answer. Meanwhile Willem Dafoe’s old-hand Marcus uses a juicer to stay healthy (the actor’s own idea), and Wick’s sprees are frequently interrupted by cops – or other assassins – who remember him fondly and pay little attention.
Kolstad’s best invention is the Continental Hotel, a high-class safehouse run by Conrad (Ian McShane), where the likes of Wick and rival killer Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) can do business without fear of getting gun-fu’ed. When our bloodied hero hobbles into the lobby and asks about the quality of the laundry service, the unflappable concierge (Lance Reddick) offers, “No one’s that good.”
Truth is, we could a use little more Reddick, not to mention McShane, Dafoe and John Leguizamo, who has just one proper scene as tough-as-nails chopshop owner Aurelio. Despite far too many helicopter shots of Manhattan (seemingly left over from the end credits), Stahelski and Leitch direct the hell out of what little story there is – particularly the extraordinary car sequences – but this is one film that could actually use a sequel/sidequel for Kolstad’s characters to really let rip.
Reeves acquits himself ably, too, only coming unstuck in an embarrassingly po-faced and kind of awesome puppy-based monologue. Perhaps that’s where John Wick fits best. It’s deathly serious, but with a sense of its own ridiculousness. Keanu, you feel, is back where he belongs.