Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.
John left the underworld when he fell in love, but his wife (Bridget Moynahan) succumbed to cancer, gifting him posthumously with a beagle puppy. Don’t get too attached to the pup, who before the movie is ten minutes old dies under the boots of a Russian lowlife whose father (Michael Nyqvist) is John’s former employer. The lowlife son, ignorant of John’s identity, shows up at his house to steal his vintage Mustang; the puppy is merely collateral damage, and thankfully the incident is only obliquely seen/heard. Still, the pup was a living link to John’s wife, so he’s riled up enough to come out of retirement and kill his way through rows of Russian thugs until he finds the one who, as he puts it, “stole my car and killed my dog.”
That motive is simple enough to have sufficed as the plot fuel for a thirties western, and indeed John Wick is simple. Every year or so we get one of these throwback action-thrillers that dispense with plot complications and simply chug along on steam made of hot blood and gunfire (and, during the climax here, lightning bolts). As such things go, John Wick is less fun than Premium Rush (it lacks quirky supporting performances á la Michael Shannon) but blessedly less pompous and brutal than Drive. The violence here, while bloody, is borderline balletic — not to the extent of the bullet-time of The Matrix or the gun-kata in Equilibrium, but the emphasis is on how comically accurate John’s aim is, how he literally bumps people off as easily as swatting flies. John is a killing machine, but by virtue of being played by Keanu Reeves he’s soulful and human. (A bit on the mopey side, though; Reeves spends the entire movie looking like that Sad Keanu photo that made the Internet rounds a few years back — understandable, given the character’s grief.)
The temptation is to make a case for John Wick as pure cinema, but I can resist it. The directors may know their way around stuntwork and fight choreography, but that doesn’t mean they know how to shoot and edit it; one scene, inside a nightclub lighted like a furnace, is visually illegible. And despite a cast including John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, David Patrick Kelly, and Adrianne Palicki as an assassin named Ms. Perkins, the filmmakers aren’t actors’ directors either. They know how to set their wind-up anti-hero on his path to retributive bloodletting, which turns out to be more than a little anticlimactic, and that’s about all they know how to do. The movie is being wildly overpraised for containing a few nifty gun massacres. I remember when we wanted, and got, more from action movies.