There’s a certain kind of action movie where a former cop/assassin/mercenary is dragged out of retirement by a nefarious act that begs for — nay, demands — justice (this time it’s personal, usually), whereupon we are treated to a satisfying tale of violent retribution. “John Wick” is that kind of movie. In fact, it’s determined to be the quintessential That Kind of Movie, slyly boiling the plot down to its barest essentials and exaggerating its hero’s power for the sake of humor, all without failing to deliver the impeccably choreographed fight sequences that are the hallmark of a quality production of this genre.
It stars Keanu Reeves and was directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, experienced stunt coordinators who worked with Reeves on several films (including “The Matrix”) and are behind the camera for the first time. (Due to arcane Directors Guild rules, only Stahelski is credited.) You can tell that “John Wick” is the work of stuntmen because the action is clear, crisp, and coherent enough for viewers to appreciate it.
But more than that, the screenplay (by first-timer Derek Kolstad) skips the baloney and bulks up on the good stuff. Here’s what I mean. The film starts with John Wick’s wife dying (of natural causes) and bequeathing him the surprise gift of a beagle puppy, a new friend for him to love now that she’s gone. John and the puppy are adorable together. They drive around in his car, a 1969 Mustang that he loves almost as much as he loves his dead wife and new puppy.
Then, not four scenes later, Russian gangsters beat him up, steal the car, and kill the puppy.
BOOM, done. Despite knowing almost nothing about John Wick, we’re enthusiastically onboard with whatever he plans to do now. Plenty of films would develop John’s character first, maybe establish more of a relationship between him and the car and the dog. Storywise, that’s what you “should” do, or whatever. But our filmmakers have assumed, correctly, that the audience for this type of movie would just as soon skip the preliminaries and get to the point. This gentleman needs a good reason to seek revenge. We got it.
The Russian chiefly responsible for John’s new misery is Iosef (Alfie Allen), the sniveling hothead son of crime boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Iosef is accustomed to doing whatever he wants without consequence, but his father’s reaction to learning that John Wick has been the victim of his infamy is a rude awakening. We come to understand that before he was domesticated, John Wick worked with these Russians and others in the city’s elaborately fabricated criminal underworld. (More on that later.) The degree to which the mere mention of John Wick’s name strikes fear and awe in people is highly amusing, almost a parody of lethal movie heroes whose reputation precedes them.
The story unfolds in the expected manner. Viggo agrees that Iosef was out of line, but he can’t very well let somebody kill his son, not even John Wick. He puts Iosef in hiding and puts a price on Wick’s head, bringing contract killers Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Jenny (Adrianne Palicki) into the story so they can pop up occasionally as additional obstacles between the protagonist and his goal of killing Iosef.
Though it doesn’t do anything overtly self-aware, the film also makes no attempt to hide its shopworn formula. We’re given only sparse details on Wick’s backstory, no specifics on how such a mild-seeming man came to be so universally feared even by hardened criminals. He just is. And in the same way, the movie is unabashedly straightforward about what it is: a rowdy, barely logical action flick about an indestructible badass hero.
There’s something more to it, though, and that’s a knowing sense of humor and an eye for world-building details. Wick stays at a fancy, discreet hotel where the desk clerk (Lance Reddick) treats him reverentially. The hotel caters to people in the Sin City-ish criminal underworld, offering a neutral place where business isn’t conducted and where a clean-up crew for any unfortunate “incidents” (like maybe you have to kill a few henchmen who came after you) is on call 24 hours a day. (Bonus: Ian McShane as Winston, an elegant man who gently enforces the hotel’s policies.) Over at Viggo’s headquarters, there’s a running joke where he keeps slipping into Russian while talking to his second-in-command (played by deadpan Dean Winters), whose exasperation over this is never not funny.
Coming after last year’s “Man of Tai Chi” (which Reeves also directed and starred in), “John Wick” (which he executive-produced) suggests the once and future Ted “Theodore” Logan is having a lot of fun in this new cycle of high-energy, fight-heavy action films. He’s a nimble fighter, as swift at 50 as he was in “The Matrix” at 35, and his characteristic woodenness works in a movie focused on relentless action. Still, when you get right down to it, what he’s mostly doing is shooting people. A certain repetitiveness does start to settle in before it’s over. But you can forgive that in such a lean, colorful, crowd-pleasing bloodbath, one that so expertly works up our righteous anger and then satisfies our thirst for justice. You never mess with a man’s dog!
B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; )