Seemingly on a mission to remind us that he was once a great action movie star, Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick and the results are pleasingly action-packed, giving even the best John Woo cinema a run for its money in terms of body count and with more bullets sprayed in the name of revenge than you could shake a semi-automatic machine gun at.
Wick is a retired but still legendary assassin who just lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan) to an illness. Trying to mourn, he receives a package in the mail containing a puppy, a present from his late wife with which he forms a strong attachment. One day he crosses paths with Iosef Tarasov (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), the son of a Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist) who later comes to his home, beats Wick senseless and kills his beloved dog, not realising who exactly Wick is and why he shouldn’t be messed with. Wick takes this to heart, to put it mildly, and comes out of retirement to take revenge on the unsuspecting Iosef and killing anyone who gets in his way.
John Wick’s old-fashioned revenge thriller approach works both for and against the film. On the one-hand it’s a no-nonsense throwback to the Death Wish type revenge film that’s only in the last few years made a comeback (see Cold In July, A Walk Among the Tombstones for just a couple of recent examples) but on the other hand it makes the film feel slightly dated even in spite of its fanciful modern style of action. It’s like dressing up an old car with modern bodywork and how much you’re willing to accept that conceit will determine how much you enjoy it.
The clichéd Russian mobster storyline and almost achingly straightforward premise aside, the film succeeds on what it primarily set out to do; deliver some expertly choreographed, bone-crunching and wince-inducing action sequences. Taking on a sort of Raid-esque approach, the film often follows the action in a ballet-like fashion instead of resorting to the sort of quick edits that give many-a-modern day action flick a false sense of freneticism. It’s directed by Chad Stahelski and (for some reason uncredited) David Leitch, both long-time stunt coordinators and fight choreographers and you can tell; the action is clean, elegant and visually arresting in all the best ways, an equally graceful and stylish mix of shootouts, knife fights and hand-to-hand combat that elevates John Wick over many of the revenge actioners that have come and gone without incident or impact over the last few years.
The film makes an admirable though not altogether successful attempt at building a layered criminal world around Wick and his blistering siege of revenge. Before he sets out, he checks into a hotel that seems to specifically cater to assassins who need a place to either lay low or prepare for a mission, with the strict rule that none of their actual business shall be brought to the hotel’s doorstep. There are other details like appearances by other legendary assassins and relayed tales of the jobs Wick pulled off years prior that hint at an expansive crime world. It may be something that the filmmakers explore more thoroughly in the already announced sequel but it feels frustratingly half-baked this time.
Much of John Wick’s first act is basically people telling us why Wick is the last person anyone wants to take on in a fight and when the mayhem ensues it is entertainingly full-on and provides us with a punch-to-the-face reminder of Reeves’ action hero credentials and charisma as a leading man when given the right sort of role. It’s far from perfect, with its rather generically plotted tendencies sometimes getting in the way of things, but it delivers on the elegantly bone-crunching action that it so boldly promises from the outset.