As a simple exercise in pulpish revenge cinema, “John Wick” is efficient and stylish, rattling off genre conventions with aplomb. If one is looking for a bit more than that, Chad Stahelski’s movie will not provide it. But why not be satisfied with what it does bring to the party?
Like Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington in the recent misguided reboot of “The Equalizer,” the titular character here is retired from a career of violence. And like McCall, he’s grieving over the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan). But Washington’s character was a former CIA operative, a heroic type. Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is an antihero, a onetime legendary contract killer who abandoned the life for domesticity. And even now, he has no desire to return to his old trade, preferring to bond with Daisy, the loving Beagle puppy his wife arranged to be delivered after her funeral. (A reference to “Blondie,” perhaps?)
What changes his mind is an assault on his house by hotheaded Josef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, a suitably odious little snot), the son of Russian mob kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), for whom John once worked. Josef doesn’t know who Wick is, of course—he merely wants to appropriate the guy’s muscle car, a ’69 Mustang. But when he and his chums rough up Wick, steal the car and—gasp!—kill his dog, that pulls John back into the fray. And when he’s on the prowl, no one, and nothing, is safe, including great expanses of background scenery, like a glass-filled bar that’s pretty much devastated during one particularly prolonged sequence in which Wick dispatches a small army of Tarasov henchmen while on Josef’s trail. A church that serves as Viggo’s vault is another site that suffers a good deal of damage from Wick’s campaign—as does its corrupt pastor (Munro M. Bonnell), who’s in league with the mobster.
Along the way to the inevitable showdown—or series of showdowns, actually—other colorful characters appear. The most notable, after Viggo—played suavely by Nyqvist, with an undercurrent of menace just below the surface—is Marcus (the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe), a sharpshooting old colleague of John’s whose motives in the ensuing mayhem remain mysterious for a while. But there are also Avi (Dean Winters), Viggo’s yuppie aide-de-camp; Aurelio (John Leguizamo), a chop-shop owner in league with Viggo; Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), an ambitious femme fatale; and Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental, a hotel catering to professional assassins whose premises are off-limits to any violence—a rule that cannot be broken with impunity. All have their moments, but it’s McShane’s tongue-in-cheek turn that will certainly elicit the most smiles among genre aficionados.
There really isn’t much to the plot of the movie, which consists merely of Wick breaking open his hidden stash of weapons and grimly tracking down Josef while dealing with all those who either have been hired to protect him or are trying to collect the handsome bounty that Viggo has put on his head. But Stahelski and Reeves carry off the really important elements of the movie—the action set-pieces—with considerable skill. In an era when most such material is served up haphazardly, with jerky, hand-held camera shots and whiplash editing, they, working closely with cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elisabeth Ronalds, choreograph the motion carefully, so that you can actually see what’s happening even if the topography isn’t always entirely clear. The best comparison among recent films of this type is probably to “Drive,” which displayed a similar sense of coherence and elegance in composition. The result may seem a trifle sedate to some action junkies, but it has the virtue of limiting the likelihood of headache or nausea among viewers.
And the picture isn’t merely a success for the first-time director, an erstwhile stuntman who’s worked a good deal with Reeves in the past. It’s also a nice return to form for the actor, who frankly hasn’t had much luck as a leading man on screen since the original “Matrix” and whose best work (like “The Gift” and “Street Kings”) went pretty much ignored. Wick is a part that fits him perfectly, not exactly one-note but fairly close to it, and giving him space to brood without requiring him to recite much dialogue (never his strong suit). This will probably restore in great measure the iconic status that Reeves once enjoyed, at least among genre-movie fans, and which misfires like “47 Ronin” failed to rekindle.
“John Wick” brings to mind the old sexist observation that a ruffian once made about a thin but pretty girl. There isn’t much to it, but what there is, is choice.