It’s always a bold move for an action movie to name itself after its lead character, especially if the character isn’t known to audiences yet. A title is the first and sometimes only chance studios get to describe or sell a movie to audiences, and whether it’s John Carter or Jack Reacher, a name alone tells nothing to an audience. Such action movies need to be good enough to deliver if audiences go in sight unseen. Thankfully, despite the generic title, John Wick is one of the better action movies of the fall.
John Wick is a straightforward revenge flick, with nothing on its mind beyond telling the story of one man pushed too far who exacts a punishing revenge on anyone who gets between him and the man who destroyed his life. In this case, Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife to cancer and is grieving through caring for a young puppy, when the cocky, young Iosef (Alfie Allen) tries to purchase Wick’s 1969 Mustang.
When Wick refuses to sell it, Iosef and his hoodlum friends break into Wick’s house in the middle of the night, beat him to a pulp, steal his car, and kill his dog on the way out. Iosef, it turns out, is the son of a Russian mob boss (Michael Nyquist). But Wick, it turns out, is the killer that killers fear, who had retired when he fell in love. With nothing left to live for, he goes on a rampage of vengeance, with his aim squarely on Iosef.
The story is bland at best and laughable at its worst. Director Chad Stahelski smartly knows that in order to balance out the ridiculous story, he needs to give the audience something different visually, and he certainly does that. While many action movies today frenetically cut between split-second shots to simulate crazy action, Stahelski relies instead on long, extended shots that can last up to a minute, in which Wick kills a dozen or two people in an almost balletic motion of fluidity.
The world of the characters in John Wick is an interesting one, as Stahelski paints the picture of a secret underworld of assassins operating in plain sight yet unseen by the average citizen. It’s like the invisibility of wizarding areas to muggles in the Harry Potter series, but with assault rifles instead of wands.
Reeves, so often mocked for his stiffness, is excellent here. While his emotional range may be limited, Reeves has always been good at anguish, which is all that’s required of him for the opening scenes. Beyond that, his stoic face just serves to make the character of Wick all the more intimidating and unpredictable. Nyquist, so good in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, is wonderful as Viggo, the Russian crime lord who knows from personal experience just how unstoppable Wick is. Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane are also excellent in their supporting roles.
John Wick’s biggest fault is that it’s so concerned with getting right to the sleek action and never slowing down, it never really bothers explaining who anyone is or why they make the decisions they do. The movie’s not concerned with answering any questions (other than one excellent scene in which Viggo gives a speech to his son about John Wick), so if you spend your time waiting for answers, you’ll ultimately be aggravated.
This is exactly the type of action movie Reeves does really well, and doesn’t do enough of anymore. It may not have the ingenuity of The Matrix or the perfect construction of Speed, but if you don’t count oddities like A Scanner Darkly or Side by Side, John Wick is the best thing Reeves has done in around a decade.
And as far as movies named after the lead character go, it beats the pants off of Johnny Mnemonic.