Keanu Reeves may not be the greatest thespian of his generation, but you have to give the man points for doing the unexpected. After hits like Speed and The Matrix trilogy, he could easily have coasted by on name recognition, collecting big paydays and headlining spectacle level action tentpoles (okay, he tried on occasion, with films like Constantine and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but those are relatively few and far between). Instead, however, he’s chosen offbeat projects, like A Scanner Darky, and made his directorial debut with an old school martial arts film, Man of Tai Chi, where he plays against type as a villain. He’s even taking a turn on TV with the upcoming miniseries Rain. John Wick, a gritty, throwback revenge actioner, helmed by two stuntmen making their own directorial debut, is another unusual choice, and it may be my favorite movie of the year thus far. It’s definitely up there.
The plot of John Wick is standard fare, and doesn’t sound like anything special right up front. Okay, that’s not entirely true. If you’re looking for a tough, grim revenge movie, which I most often am (I keep telling people this is like they made the movie that’s been playing in my head since the early ‘90s), this is precisely what you’re after. It drives home two facts that movies have taught us to be inherently true: never fuck with a man’s car or his dog (see The Rover for other examples of both of these truths from 2014). And as someone who would murder every last one of you for even thinking about harming his dogs, this is a move and a movie that I can totally get behind.
Reeves plays the title character, and if you forget that, even for a moment, the movie constantly reminds you by having people reverently say his full name over and over again. That sounds annoying, but it’s actually pretty funny. The film starts out with his wife’s funeral, which plays out in a dreamy, flashback-filled manner that shows you just how in love they were. When he gets home, he finds one last gift from his dear departed, an adorable little puppy, so he doesn’t have to grieve alone. Who needs a wife when you’ve got a puppy?
At this point, you still don’t know much about him, but a chance gas station encounter with Iosef Tarasov (Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy, I mean Alfie Allen) changes all of that. When the son of a Russian mobster—a total wiener son, by the way, constantly belittled and abused by everyone, his own father and friends included—breaks into John Wick’s house, kills his dog, and steals his sweet muscle car, secrets begin to surface. Turns out, he was an enforcer for Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), Iosef’s father, and as the elder gangster says, John Wick isn’t the boogeyman, he’s the one you send to kill the fucking boogeyman.
What follows, as you probably imagine, is a kill-crazy rampage of truly biblical proportions. Drawn back into his old life, he slaughters everyone, in the most gleefully brutal manner, changing suits repeatedly. After all, manners dictate that the suit you wear to murder people in a mob-owned nightclub is totally different than the one you put on just to murder thugs sent to kill you in your own home. It’s in the Emily Post book, I’m sure.
All of these things that shouldn’t really work—like John Wick screaming “why” at the heavens, Viggo’s cowardly lawyer (a perfect Dean Winters, the Beeper King from 30 Rock), and obvious dialogue that is obviously loaded, among many others—are totally fine and forgivable. Each and every beat is delivered with a perfect mixture of absolute sincerity and tongue-in-cheek awareness. The plot isn’t anything surprising, but there are enough weird touches, like a mob hotel that functions as sacred, consecrated ground where no business is allowed, that keep it from being stale.
It’s like in every situation John Wick asked “what would be the most awesome thing that could occur here,” and then that’s exactly what happens. Everyone who shows up in the movie is someone you recognize. Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, Clarke Peters, Kevin Nash, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and too many others to name, pop in, have a fun, badass scene or two, sometimes just a few lines, and wander off into the night. And because directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are stunt guys, it’s an all-star stunt party.
The action scenes are, as you would hope given the players involved, great. They’re big and sprawling, meticulously choreographed and executed. So much head shooting. Fights are shown in big chunks and wide shots, and look like people who know how to fight actually fighting, instead of a barrage of incoherent edits. You can tell what’s going on all the time, it’s like a fucking miracle in an age of half-second, seizure-inducing cuts.
But as fantastic as those scenes are, John Wick doesn’t just rely on action. Leitch and Stahelksi actually work to build tension and atmosphere and mood. The high-octane stuff works so well because they juxtapose against quieter elements. And Reeves plays his part perfectly. He’s never going to win any awards, but he has a definite screen presence that you can’t look away from. Though he still sounds like Ted “Theodore” Logan from Excellent Adventure, watching him tear people apart—he does a lot of his own stunts, and definitely doesn’t look or move like a 50-year-old dude—is a total blast, but you’re also 100% in his corner.
Nyqvist is something to behold here. He flip-flops back and forth between stereotypical movie Russian mob boss, and is terrifying when he needs to be, but he’s also world-weary and browbeaten. He always looks like he’s on the verge of throwing up his hands, yelling “Fuck it,” and just giving up on life. This humanizes what could very easily have been a throwaway cliché. Allen basically plays Theon, a cocky, privileged prick—with a terrible accent that is somehow charming and hilarious instead of grating—and he’s just such a raging rectum that watching everyone shit all over him is a true pleasure.
Earlier when I made an allusion to the Bible, that was only partial hyperbole. John Wick is fairly overt when it comes to the religious iconography and subtext, but again, it manages to pull this off without being too obvious or heavy-handed. There’s clearly good versus evil in play, and when you see him in the shower, John Wick is covered in crosses and Christian symbols. In the story, the way he functions is very much as God’s flaming sword of divine justice, unleashed to balance things out against evil men.
As he rips his way through the New York underworld, he has people watching over him, like Willem Dafoe’s Marcus, who serves as John Wick’s guardian angel, protecting him from on high with a sniper rifle. In this particular iteration of the Russian mob, archaic gold coins are used as currency, to barter favors with, gain access to secret underground lairs, and even pay the weird little man who quite literally ferries away the dead. Viggo uses a corrupted church as a depository for all of his ill-gotten gains, and when John Wick shows up, the scene calls to mind Jesus cleansing the temple of the moneylenders in the Gospel of John. (You can’t help but notice that John Wick, with his long hair and beard does bear a passing resemblance to the erstwhile son of God, though with a nicer suit.)
Just in case you didn’t get my point: I am on board with John Wick in every conceivable way. It’s a badass revenge actioner with kickass stunt work (so much fishtailing), there’s a wicked gallows humor that runs throughout, as well as thread of random weirdness that helps the story feel fresh, and subtext you don’t normally expect out of this genre. I didn’t stop smiling and giggling through the entire movie—for a dour narrative about death, loss, and violence, it’s surprisingly good natured—and since seeing it, random pieces pop into may head, and it starts all over again.