John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has had a rough time of it recently, as his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) passed away not long into their marriage, not only the love of his life but a symbol of his dear wish to settle down and away from the existence he had hoped to leave behind. Being a hitman for Russian gangsters in the United States has allowed him to be financially independent, but he does not relish a return to those days, no matter how effective at killing people he was, and his old colleague Marcus (Willem Dafoe) was at the funeral to let him know he completely understood his choices. But Helen left something for her widower, a puppy for him to take care of, and John makes up his mind to treat the pet with as much love as his wife would have…
Ah, bit of a problem there when the son of Wick’s old boss covets his muscle car and breaks into his house to steal it from him, along with his henchmen. This Iosef (a well-cast Alfie Allen) is clearly despicable from his first appearance on the screen, using his father’s influence to get what he wants because he knows nobody will dare stand up to him with that threat backing him up – he hasn’t earned any respect whatsoever, and we can well understand that by throwing his weight around he is the villain. His father, Viggo Tarasov (seasoned Swedish character actor Michael Nyqvist) probably had the more depth as far as personality went, suffering his son’s behaviour because he was family, but what Iosef does to the little doggie was evidently unforgivable as far as the morality of the film went.
That’s right, this was yet another Hollywood movie to tug on the audience’s heartstrings not by bumping off a human being, but a defenceless animal instead, thereby appealing to a portion of them who would be suitably horrified at cruelty to animals. There was a little more to it here, as after years of violence it’s implied Helen’s death was the first one to really affect Wick as he had given his heart to her, and that the puppy was terminated with extreme prejudice was enough to trigger his bloodlust and need for vengeance. That might seem out of proportion in light of how many people – bad guys – he ended up killing, but you could appreciate in his grief he is not in his right mind, therefore will set to redress the balance in his life in that manner.
So much for the motives, what was the rest of it like? Surprisingly efficient in its strong echoes of a Hong Kong heroic bloodshed flick, with its stoic hero cutting a swathe through everything the gangster boss can throw at him, and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch piled on the style in their visuals. There may be only so many ways you can film an actor shooting his way through villains, but at least these guys, who had worked with Reeves on The Matrix, kept things interesting and not too samey, considering it was yet another old geezer action movie as instigated by Liam Neeson a few years before. Reeves wasn’t exactly of pensionable age when he made this, but it did represent a formula that had not always proved profitable for other mature stars hitting the comeback trail.
John Wick assuredly was a comeback for Reeves, some six years after a mediocre reception for his Day the Earth Stood Still remake had landed him in something of a wilderness of indies, and the “Sad Keanu” meme which had made him a figure of sympathy; you get the impression this film piled on the tragedy at the outset to get us firmly on his side in much the same way. His approach to acting, what might be charitably described as “less is more”, was undeniably charismatic when applied with skill, and as he was aware of his limitations he could play to his strengths, as happened with this when the plot was almost childishly simple: Wick wants revenge, so kills a bunch of evildoers to get it. It would have been a Western in another age, but here was a basic gangster movie with quirks such as Adrianne Palicki as a smooth hitwoman or Dafoe’s Marcus hired to assassinate Wick but having second thoughts, not without humour as a whole but in the main a pure depiction of a curious nobility that would only really play in the world of thriller fiction, making this a fantasy, but one with, as that barmaid observes, a vulnerable hero since he allowed himself to love someone once. Music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard (and a tad too much Marilyn Manson).