It’s been a long time since Keanu Reeves’ last success as a genuine movie star. So long that many may have given up hope of witnessing again the charismatic onscreen presence that lit up The Matrix Trilogy and Point Break. With The Day the Earth Stood Still and 47 Ronin as our most recent and all too memorable points of reference, Reeves looked destined to slip out of favour as a great Hollywood has-been. It’s a relief then, and something of a surprise, that John Wick excels with the now 50 year old actor as the titular lead. Though it may not be a generation defining phenomenon, the film deservedly restores Reeves to the position of movie star.
The catalyst for this success is undoubtedly the film’s director, Chad Stahelski. Having worked as a stunt coordinator and double for Reeves on the Matrix films, and now running his own stunt company, he is excellently placed to play to all of Reeves’ strengths. Following a brief but heartfelt opening ten minutes that sets up the most elemental of revenge plots, John Wick plays out like a long, glorified, operatic action sequence. Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones) plays Iosef, a swaggering, jumped-up son of Russian mafia boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who takes it upon himself to steal John Wick’s car and kill his dog. Unbeknown to Iosef, Wick is a legendary retired assassin, and his dog was the last parting gift from his dying wife.
Suited, sculpted and dressed entirely in black, we get to see Reeves at his best, a force of nature that is a joy to watch
What follows is essentially a poised, gorgeously shot and choreographed action sequence, which runs for around 60 minutes, and leads the audience through the world within a world that is the New York crime scene. From neon bathed clubs to disused churches, to hotels to dockyards, John Wick ticks off all the classic action sequence set pieces. It all kicks off with an excellently well composed stealth sequence, in which Wick clinically dispatches of a small army of hitmen sent to his home under cover of dark. Suited, sculpted and dressed entirely in black, we get to see Reeves at his best, a force of nature that is a joy to watch. His dialogue may be minimal, but he has an unreadable quality onscreen that brings an impressive amount of weight to the role, and is made excellent use of by Stahelski. Without any big shows of emotion he produces a formidable image of someone in grief and embattled, yet ruthlessly effective.
What Stahelski crucially understands is how to make the best use of the excellently talented stuntman in Reeves. He chooses not to bring the camera right into the action, with close proximity and rapid cuts in quick succession, the technique used so successfully in the Bourne Trilogy and every Liam Neeson film. Rather, he knows Reeves is capable of delivering a believable fight sequence, and makes a spectacle of it. Despite the unrelenting combat, Stahelski keeps the choreography fresh, not limiting himself to simple guns, knives and fists he makes great use of the environment and timing. This is handsomely demonstrated in a small sequence where Wick entraps an attacker in his tie to buy time to reload. Despite this, towards the end, the film does slightly run out of ideas, and falls back to a guns and SUVs car chase that’s all been done before.
Despite the unrelenting combat, Stahelski keeps the choreography fresh
The film also boasts a respectable supporting cast, including Willem Dafoe, who is as gaunt and eye-catching on screen as ever as the weary counter-assassin, while Alfie Allen is brilliantly petulant and cowardly in equal measures as the ultimate target of John Wick’s unrelenting wrath. Michael Nyqvist is one of the film’s few missteps, as a singularly unthreatening Russian mafia boss. Rather than set up an epic coming together of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, his lack of onscreen persona threatens to reduce the action to John Wick simply ploughing through unfortunate Russian mobsters. Fortunately Ian McShane is on hand with a performance that has all the mystery and power of any classic crime lord.
All said and done, the film’s greatest strength will for some be its greatest weakness. Beyond the spectacle there’s very little in terms of character development, humour or much to fire emotional investment on the part of the audience. But if the success of Taken is anything to go by, then it won’t be long at all before we see John Wick return to the big screen, whatever that means for Keanu Reeves.