THINGS haven’t been going great for Keanu Reeves’ career lately; the 2013’s hit-and-miss samurai flick 47 Ronin marked the most recent high point since his turn of the century Matrix success. But everything has just changed with John Wick.
Judge this one by its trailer and you’d be forgiven for thinking this will be more middle of the road action, but this is a film that defies expectations.
This may be the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski but you would never guess it.
Perhaps learning by osmosis over the years, Stahelski has a long career in stunts, and he clearly brings that experience with him because the end result is 101 minutes of very solid action.
But what is so refreshing about John Wick is that it delivers the action in tandem with so much more.
Keanu plays Wick, who when we first meet him has just lost his wife to illness.
Isolated and in deep mourning, his only source of hope is a puppy that his wife left him, and I’m sure you can guess where this is going.
Some dastardly Russian gangsters led by the brazen and cocksure Iosef (Alfie Allen) break into Wick’s house to steal his car, and in the process Wick’s yappy but convenient symbol of hope is snuffed out.
It sounds ridiculous, and it partly is – John Wick manages to hit this very lovely comic book feel.
It is surprising when you learn that it is an original story, there is the feel that the world presented in the film is incredibly complete – replete with its own cast of characters, underground rules, and lingo.
The end result is something that manages to strike a tone that remains light enough for you to want to cheer for Wick and his mission of revenge, and dark enough to strike the emotional chords that make you feel that retribution is crucial.
You wouldn’t guess it to look at him, but it quickly becomes clear that John Wick is the most legendary killer the criminal underworld has ever known.
Possessed by an almost supernatural ability to kill while avoiding being killed, a mere mention of Wick’s name is enough to cause a tremor in the voice of even the most established Russian mob bosses.
When Iosef’s father (Michael Nyqvist) catches wind of what his son has done (it is not “what you have done son, but who you did it to”) he realises that a storm is coming that cannot be escaped.
Once we are into the thick of things, the action is unrelenting, but never exhausting.
Filled with bombastic hand-to-hand scenes and featuring its fair share of gory headshots, the kill count quickly racks up.
And there’s a rare authenticity to the violence, due to Keanu doing a lot of the close combat stunt-work himself.
John Wick manages to make the action genre feel fresh in a way that The Raid did back in 2011.
The bloodshed, of course, will not be for everybody, but no doubt it will find a certain appeal in the market.
John Wick taps into that perennial story of retribution in the way that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven does – a story where hidden inside the benign facade of every man is a dormant killing machine waiting to be ignited.
And no doubt, there is a cathartic payoff in watching that Wick burn down to the point of detonation.
A well-made, very satisfying blend of fun and revenge, John Wick has unexpectedly stamped out its own ground.
This may be the best performance we have seen from Keanu Reeves, and the best action film in recent years.