By Chaz Lipp
In what is being correctly billed as a comeback film, Keanu Reeves stars as a retired hitman in John Wick, directed with stylish efficiency by Chad Stahelski (and, apparently, co-director David Leitch). Without wasting any of its economical 96 minutes, we’re introduced to recent widower John Wick. He’s grieving the loss of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan, glimpsed in flashbacks), who succumbed to a devastating, but unidentified, illness. Her final gift to John, delivered posthumously, is a puppy. Intended as a beacon of hope, the puppy is a companion for John to help him get past his mourning.
Anyone who has ever felt themselves capable of unforgiving rage against anyone who dare commit a hurtful or fatal act toward their pet will immediately fall sympathetic to John’s impending plight. He’s confronted by Russian gangsters at a gas station, chiefly Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones) who covets his ’69 Mustang. Not knowing of his past career as an unrelenting contract killer – the best in the business, it would seem – Iosef naïvely, arrogantly comes to John’s house to steal his car. He and his henchmen kill John’s puppy as well (no spoiler, as this plot point has been central to the film’s marketing campaign). Without announcing a return to his previous profession, John springs into vengeful action to track down and kill Iosef – and anyone who gets in his way. Given that the young, dumb gangster is the son of mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), there are a lot of people who get in his way.
John Wick is the most satisfyingly straightforward, no-nonsense action thriller since Taken. Forward momentum is the key here, with John gliding smoothly from one action set piece to the next. The trailer suggested the potential for excessive action overload, but the directing/producing team of Stahelski and Leitch never give into the temptation to blow up Wick beyond its modest aspirations. As John’s friend and former business associate Marcus, Willem Dafoe has some nice moments. Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.’s Adrianne Palicki is likewise effective in a supporting role as a rival hitman who memorably encounters John at a safe zone, the Continental Hotel.
Animal lovers and pet owners skittish about the killing of John’s puppy (I count myself among with a low tolerance for animal deaths in movies, traumatized by Old Yeller in my youth), know that its handled relatively gracefully and provides John with his entire motivation to seek retribution. Keanu Reeves was good in 47 Ronin, unfairly panned by critics and ignored by audiences when it was practically buried by Universal at the end of 2013. That was a $175 million, effects-laden epic while the lean John Wick was reportedly produced for somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million. It’s his first movie since The Matrix to give him a signature role. This thing has “franchise” written all over it – all it needs to do is find an audience.