John Wick (2014)
He knows gun-fu
After something of a hiatus from the spotlight - and a couple of "warm up" movies in Man of Tai Chi (his directorial debut) and 47 Ronin - Keanu Reeves makes an explosive return to the genre which has arguably produced his most accomplished body of work (i.e. Point Break, Speed, and of course, The Matrix). Set in a slightly quirky, off kilter version of New York City (reminiscent of Mel Gibson's criminal-verse in Payback), Reeves is John Wick. Once the most feared underworld hit-man in the business, Wick fell in love and successfully got out of the game to pursue a "normal life." However, a chain of unfortunate events forces him out of retirement, and onto a path which will inevitably lead to a deadly confrontation with his former employer and head of the Russian mob. So far, so original, right?
The plot may be cliché city but the film-makers - veteran stunt performers Chad Stahleski, David Leitch, and writer, Derek Kolstad - succeed in its execution where many others have faltered. They skilfully set up the narrative in the first act, eliciting sympathy for our anti-hero's plight, and ensuring the viewer empathises with John Wick as he seeks vengeance. The sense of loss is keenly felt, and leaves you rooting for Wick to unleash hell on the punks that have crossed him. They also skilfully construct the mythology of the eponymous assassin, even if Reeves is perhaps too amiable in his demeanour to completely convince as the ultimate badass killer. Incidentally, Reeves is actually rather menacing as the psychopathic villain in the aforementioned Man of Tai Chi, and perhaps could have channelled some of that character into John Wick (but that would likely lose some of the audience, so I can understand his portrayal).
With the audience firmly along for the ride, the stage is set to unleash the action, and it certainly delivers in full R-Rated glory. As an unashamed action movie aficionado that has been fed up with the current trend for dilution of screen violence to cater for a wider demographic - e.g. Taken sequels, Expendables sequels - it's refreshing to once more experience a "real" piece of action cinema that's not afraid to spill a bit of blood (albeit CGI blood).
Reeves once proclaimed to "know kung fu" and, as John Wick, he now also knows "gun fu." At the sprightly age of fifty (although he could still pass for at least ten years younger), Reeves went through extensive training - re-uniting with Matrix stunt collaborators Stahleski and Leitch, and Daniel Berhnardt (who played the "upgrade" agent in Matrix Reloaded) - to perform a series of intricate set pieces that fuses gunplay with judo/jujitsu techniques, his character akin to a modern day Ronin such is the cool efficiency in which Wick dispatches his foes. John Woo slow motion theatrics, this is not.
John Wick marks a strong return to form for Keanu Reeves, and possibly following the example (not to mention commitment) of Tom Cruise, proves that age is not a barrier to making great action cinema (Bruce Willis I'm looking at you). Despite my inference that Reeves lacks the ruthless demeanour of a cold blooded assassin, his acting in this film is much better than you'd expect in what is essentially a glorified B-picture.
The man formerly know as Neo is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast of familiar faces in John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and the always reliable Willem Defoe (although a tad under-used here). I particularly enjoyed Lance Reddick's - most recently making his presence felt as a shady special ops leader in The Guest - turn as the slightly eccentric manager of "the hotel." As the big bad Vigo Tarasov, weather-worn featured Swede Michael Nyqvist gets more to work with than he did in M.I.: Ghost Protocol. He has a lot of fun as the exasperated Russian mobster sent into a state of fixed bemusement at the antics of his prodigal son, which starts the chain of events that fuels John Wick's one man mission against their organisation. The only false note is Adrianne Palicki's female assassin who, whilst undeniably attractive, is rather bland (she needed to be a bit more OTT like Famke Janssen in Goldeneye).
John Wick may not win any awards for originality, but it's fusion of quirky surreal-ness, quasi video game violence - Mel Gibson's Payback meets Clive Owen's Shoot 'Em Up if you like - and uniquely choreographed action ought to leave you with a grin etched on your face by the time the credits roll. If not, check your pulse.