In an intriguing cinematic twist, Keanu Reeves’ Matrix stunt double Chad Stahelski becomes his co-director, with David Leitch, on John Wick, a visceral revenge thriller that marks a confident, muscular action debut. After a marked absence from the genre, Reeves resoundingly returns with an effortless, kinetic style that positions the film extremely well for any potential follow-ups.
With much of the marketplace distracted by awards contenders and the seasonal onslaught of horror offerings, John Wick may find an opening to start building some seriously sustained momentum with both male and female Reeves fans during its initial rollout.
Economically recapping the recent personal loss of retired Russian mob assassin John Wick (Reeves) in nested flashbacks following the untimely death of his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), the opening scenes find Wick shuffling around in a fog of grief before latching on
to his only remaining connection to her, a beagle puppy named Daisy that Helen arranged as a gift before her passing. As he struggles to regain any sense of normalcy, the dog and fond memories of his marriage give Wick some hope for the future, but it proves short-lived when he’s antagonized by petulant young gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen), who tries to intimidate Wick into selling his classic 1969 black Mustang. When that doesn’t work, Iosef and his crew break into Wick’s New Jersey home to steal the car, leaving him battered and bloodied before Iosef kills Daisy in a fit of pique.
Wick quickly snaps back into cold-blooded killer mode even after five years on the sidelines once he’s deprived of his only remaining solace, determined to hunt Iosef down in retribution. Unearthing his stash of weapons and cash, Wick discovers that his target is actually the son of his former gang boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Fully realizing who they’re up against, Viggo tells Iosef: “It’s not what you did that angers me so, it’s who you did it to,” even though he’s committed to protecting his son’s life by putting a $2 million price on Wick’s head. First to consider the opportunity is Wick’s former colleague Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a crack sniper, as well as Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), a female contract killer who’s as deadly as she is gorgeous.
Wick checks into New York’s Continental Hotel, a declared neutral zone for mobsters of all stripes, quickly getting back in touch with his old underworld contacts to begin gathering information that can lead to Iosef. After Wick nearly wipes out half the security staff in a Russian nightclub in his quest to bring down his adversary, Viggo sends his son into hiding, but it’ll clearly take more than hired assassins and subterfuge to keep John Wick from claiming his due.
Derek Kolstad’s admirably lean script propels the film’s galvanizing action with only the barest narrative essentials, quickly dispensing with the series of improbable coincidences necessitated by the initial setup. With rarely more than a quarter-hour between dynamically staged set pieces, there’s little time to wonder whether Wick has anything more on his mind than elemental revenge. As the body count skyrockets, however, the suspicion arises that he may in fact be making a final attempt at redemption by expiating his past transgressions with a final, cathartic convulsion of violence dedicated to the memory of his deceased wife.
Whatever his inner motivations, Wick isn’t one to clearly articulate them, which makes the character a natural fit with Reeves’ typically taciturn demeanor. With his stringy dark hair, scraggly beard and lithe physique, he’s in excellent form throughout the film, whether battling his way through imaginatively staged fight sequences or handling an impressive array of firearms and lethal blades.
Ironically, Nyqvist may be the more persuasive one with the turn of a phrase, but the outcome of Viggo’s final confrontation with Wick can only go one way. Although Allen doesn’t get much opportunity to develop Iosef beyond a simpering, spoiled brat and Palicki’s stone-cold killer would have benefited from a more central role, those shortcomings seem incidental in a movie where caricatures are almost more important than characters.
Distilling a couple of decades of stunt work and second-unit directing experience into 96 minutes of runtime, Stahelski and Leitch expertly deliver one action highlight after another in a near-nonstop thrill ride. With a tendency to favor skillfully framed master shots over quick cuts from multiple angles, they immerse viewers in dynamic onscreen clashes that recall John Woo’s classic bullet ballets with an overlay of emotional intensity.
Cinematographer Jonathan Sela bathes even daytime scenes in grim gray shadows and expressive blue hues that are sometimes broodingly dense even in Imax format, further enhanced by Elisabet Ronalds’ focused editing.
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Thunder Road Pictures, 87Eleven Productions, MJW Films
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Bridget Regan, John Leguizamo, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Toby Leonard Moore
Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, Michael Witherill
Executive producers: Peter Lawson, Mike Upton, Joseph Vincenti, Erica Lee, Kevin Frakes, Raj Singh, Tara Moross, Darren Blumenthal, Jared D. Underwood, Andrew C. Robinson, Sam X. Eyde
Director of photography:Jonathan Sela
Production designer: Dan Leigh
Costume designer: Luca Mosca
Editor: Elisabet Ronalds
Music: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard
Casting director: Suzanne Smith Crowley
Rated R, 96 minutes