Film Review | John Wick

Keanu Reeves is back on wooden-but-efficient form is this formualic but endearingly old-school revenge thriller

Unstoppable: Keanu Reeves as mob enforcer with a grudge, John Wick
Unstoppable: Keanu Reeves as mob enforcer with a grudge, John Wick

With Keanu Reeves, you always know what you’re going to get. Granted, that often – always – doesn’t amount to much. A good looking actor who has often found himself at the right place, at the right time, headlining a strategic mix of high-profile action films that have secured him a place in the popular imagination of the past twenty years or so.

But the fact remains that his acting skills range from ‘wooden’ to ‘abysmal’. By all on-set accouts, Reeves seems to be a nice enough guy to work with, has enough brand recognition attached to his name by now, and has given a face to some of our favourite action heroes. But his one-note performances are usually best tailored to equally one-note characters.

This is why he worked so well as Neo, the messianic lead of the Matrix trilogy. All that was asked from him was to remain cool and collected until it’s required of him to get into teeth-clenched badass mode.

It’s much the same as what’s expected of him in John Wick, a revenge thriller that harkens back to the violent B-movie hits of yore, courtesy of stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski.

Retired mob enforcer John Wick (Reeves) is having a bit of a bad week. After his wife succumbs to terminal illness, she sends him a posthumous gift in the form of an adorable beagle puppy.


But his path to psychological recovery is brutally cut short when a gang of Russian mob brats, led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), break into his house and kill the poor puppy in the process. But little does the pampered wannabe tough guy Iosef know that John Wick was formerly in the employ of his own father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who is still the big kahuna Russian gangster of the city.

Upon hearing about his son’s indiscretion, Viggo closes ranks and prepares for the worst. Because John Wick is coming… the same man the Russian mob christened their own personal ‘Baba Yaga’…

Films like John Wick – along with last year’s The Guest and Cold in July – may be popping up right now because all the multi-franchise comic book films and young adult novel adaptations are cultivating a hunger for trim-and-slim genre fare, which don’t require you to be plugged into some half-baked in-story mythology and which – crucially – don’t overstep the standard 90-minute running time remit.

On that front, John Wick is a joy to savour. If you accept that not a single idea or plot twist will be in any way original, you’re likely to have a good time of it. Starting with Reeves’ quite literally stone-cold performance and ending with the seamlessly sleek black-and-blue cinematography courtesy of Jonathan Sela, ‘Wick’ packs in both mood and thrills with calculated gusto.

An assortment of supporting players also help add a dash of colour to the stylishly monochrome palette, among them Willem Dafoe’s friendly helping hand, Ian McShane’s smouldering mentor figure and Adrienne Palicki’s vicious bounty hunter – a secondary antagonist who turns out to me more than a match for Wick.

So it’s a shame that Stahelski, formerly Reeves’ stunt double on the Matrix films, drops the ball with the hand-to-hand combat on display. In the wake of modern classics like The Raid its sequel – hell, even the raw combat on Netflix’s recent Daredevil series – which have raised the stakes on ‘in camera’ action choreography, Stahelski’s take lacks the visceral impact that is clearly strains towards.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the metallic stylisation that the rest of the film is couched in, though this has its pluses too. Placing our assassins in a hotel that serves as ‘safe zone’ in which the currency is exclusively custom gold coins is a nice touch, and helps to remind us that all of this is fantasy after all.

The ending suggests that sequels may be forthcoming. But more than anything, the original simply feels like a well-played gamble that paid off, and stretching this already brittle and well-trodden material may turn out to be more of a high-stakes risk than is wise. 

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