Near the end of John Wick’s blood-splattered second act, a Russian reprobate futilely pleads for mercy from the titular assassin played by Keanu Reeves. “It was just a fuck’n …” he spits out in subtitles, his defense cut off midsentence by the full-stop punctuation of a bullet. The message is clear: Neither John Wick nor John Wick has much time for the extraneous.
It certainly befits the spartan murder-ballad premise: A retired, newly widowed hit man avenges the theft of his ’69 Mustang and the death of his dog (a gift from his wife) by killing four score and seven bad guys. But don’t mistake this lack of frills for an absence of forethought.
As John wields gold coins for currency, chats up a congenial concierge named Charon and conducts his (mostly lopsided) battles in subterranean settings, John Wick transforms into an amusingly louche variation on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld. A hotel that caters exclusively to contract killers as a neutral zone where violence is a no-no also figures prominently into the storyline. That well-sustained mythical subtext is a lot slyer, and the world-building hotel conceit a lot weirder, than expected of a film directed by Reeves’ stuntman and scripted by a guy who writes straight-to-DVD Dolph Lundgren movies.
At the same time, John Wick delivers exactly what action fans expect, and enjoyably: A bespoke badass who delivers cleanly choreographed balletic beatdowns that feel transported from the heyday of another JW, John Woo. Whatever grace you think Reeves lacks with dialogue — I’d argue his knowledge of limitations is an asset — he makes up for with a danseur’s poise in the film’s slick and sundry action sequences. This is a far better fit for him than the flabby 47 Ronin or the feckless remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the financial failures of which have rendered Reeves anathema to studio execs.
Over nearly 25 years, director Chad Stahelski has doubled for Reeves, and he also supervised the nimble, unbridled thrashings in last year’s Man of Tai Chi. Reeves’ underrated directorial debut. If anyone has a keen eye for the leading man’s leonine physicality, it’s Stahelski, and he conducts the action in long, strong and confident takes to showcase the stamina of his star and his stuntmen. (Although the film’s credits list only Stahelski, the Internet Movie Database cites David Leitch, himself a stunt-industry veteran and longtime Reeves collaborator, as a co-director.) One scene in a club basement feels as much like a morbid modern dance as it does a gunfight. And best of all, Reeves smuggles character traits into this charnel house; you feel John’s impatience with the impertinence of his foes to not just die already.
It’s just a flicker of John’s insistent intensity. He presses a posthumous card from his wife to his nose as if to capture her essence as a memento mori, intimately faces his victims to feel their final breath on his face, and shatters his reticence with guttural declarations of violent intent. He seems so angry at clicking on an empty clip that it’s as if one of his limbs has failed him. How John rationalizes his revenge is also interesting: The puppy didn’t “save” him. It was just someone with whom to grieve until his end of days.
Reeves hard-sells the grim fatalism but also the goofy, snub-nosed comebacks crucial to making John Wick the good, stupid fun it’s intended to be. (“They’ll know you’re coming,” one target yells. John’s reply? “Of course, but it won’t matter.”) It helps that Reeves has a murderer’s row of character-actor scumsuckers and shitbags to carom off him like shells on concrete. Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and even ’80s-throwback David Patrick Kelly (of Dreamscape, Commando and The Warriors fame) turn up. They’d be villain enough for four movies, and Adrianne Palicki tosses in a femme fatale for good measure, but the real bad guys here are Alfie Allen (porting over his sluggably smug act from Game of Thrones) and Michael Nyqvist (more than making up for his muted turn in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol).
The former is Iosef Tarasov, the idiot who unleashes John’s ire not knowing who he is. The latter is Iosef’s father, Viggo, a Russian Bratva bigwig who gets the film’s biggest laugh when he finds out exactly whom Iosef has crossed. It turns out the Tarasovs owe their entire empire to John’s skills; they even had a nickname for him: babayega, Russian for “boogeyman.” Seeing as the dead dog violates John’s carefully negotiated severance package, he’ll have no problem burning down what he helped build.
Nyqvist hams it up like a Bolshevik Bob Hoskins, both resigned to the inevitable and mounting a cursory retaliation anyway. Only once does his character succumb to idiotic plotting, in a development whose repercussions cause John Wick to slightly drag on.
The unassailably delightful world-building details of the hotel for hit men pick up the slack, though. Lance Reddick (one of two actors from The Wire to turn up) offers dignified comic relief as Charon. Also, note the habitual consternation of a 24/7 on-call doctor who’s been stitching up bullet wounds for years; the actor who plays him is also a nice, barely perceptible nod back at Reeves’ Matrix franchise.
Speaking of that, John Wick holds no candle to Reeves’ 1990s holy trinity of Point Break, Speed and The Matrix. But as an admirably impish, insolent reminder of his instinct for adrenalized action, it should clearly count as time off for good behavior from his stint in movie jail.