There’s an expression that even a broken clock is right twice a day. That pretty much sums up my feelings about Keanu Reeves’ career as an action star. For every gem like Speed or The Matrix, there are about a dozen dead-on-arrival duds. I stopped counting somewhere around Constantine. But his latest rock-’em, sock-’em mission of mayhem, John Wick, is not only a return to badass form for the actor, it’s also one of the most excitingly visceral action flicks I’ve seen in ages.
The movie’s setup is almost comical in its simplicity. Reeves plays the hero of the title, a legendarily unkillable (almost Keyser Söze-like) hitman who retired from the profession five years earlier when he fell in love. But his wife has just passed away, and some hot-headed Russian gangster (Game of Thrones‘ Alfie Allen) has foolishly interrupted his grieving by stealing his 1969 Ford Mustang, beating the snot out of him, and killing his dog. And you just don’t mess with a man’s dog. John Wick is back in business. Decked out in a natty black three-piece suit and a scruffy beard, Wick is a classic man of few words. He’s Clint Eastwood minus the cheroot and the spaghetti. I’d be surprised if he speaks more than a dozen lines in the film. But when he opens his mouth, you can be damn sure he means what he says. His is the language of high-caliber bursts of lead and acrobatic fists-of-fury beat-downs.
Things get complicated on Wick’s path to payback because, it turns out, the Russian thug who wronged him is the son of the crime boss (Michael Nyqvist, of the original Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels) he once worked for. Who are we kidding? That won’t prevent an orgy of bullet-riddled vengeance. Confidently directed by veteran stuntman Chad Stahelski, John Wick has a pulsating daredevil energy. And the screenplay by Derek Kolstad (2012’s The Package) is a marvelously rich and stylish feat of pulpy world-building. Wick and his fellow hitmen (including Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and Adrianne Palicki) are like medieval masons who live by an arcane code of bylaws; they even have their own swank safe house, reserved for members of their trade. John Wick could have easily been another disposable Hollywood knuckle-dragger. But you get the sense that the filmmakers — and their revitalized leading man — were aiming for something a little daffier, smarter, and more elusive. They’ve taken a broken clock and lovingly restored it with Swiss timing and precision. A-