People keep asking if Keanu Reeves is back.
With his track record, it would almost be strange to think he ever left. While he is best known for his high-octane hits like “Speed,” “Point Break” and, of course, “The Matrix” trilogy, Reeves’ illustrious career stands on his reputation as a versatile actor, transitioning between comedic and serious roles with an ease few others can claim. However, Reeves’ career has suffered as of late, due to films like “Constantine” and “47 Ronin,” both of which failed to satisfy fans who favored the original or preexisting material. Though these films were led by directing icons like Francis Lawrence, the negative response may well have been a lesson in the ambiguous validity of reputation, which perhaps led Reeves to take a gamble with first-time director Chad Stahelski, as the title character in his latest film, “John Wick.”
The film opens to a beaten and bloodied John, struggling out of a crashed SUV. He pulls out his phone to watch a video which then rolls into a montage of his past; this shares with the audience a brief glimpse into John’s backstory, from his happiest memory to the moment he is told that he will lose the love of his life. Snapping back to reality several days before the crash, John is woken by his beagle and rises to continue with his quiet life, seemingly haunted by the shadows of loss and regret. The pair goes for a drive in John’s classic ’69 Mustang Cobra, until they are met with three young Russian men in search of trouble as one challenges John to sell his car. When John refuses, a subtle albeit terse threat foreshadows danger ahead. The men seek their revenge at John’s house that night, driving off with the Cobra and leaving John for dead in his living room. Word soon gets to Viggo Tarasov (played by Michael Nyqvist), a ruthless Russian mobster and John’s ex-employer. When Tarasov learns that his son Iosef (played by Alfie Allen) was involved in the attack, he warns that John Wick, otherwise known as the “Baba Yaga,” or “Boogieman,” is a dangerous man to cross. While Iosef’s first mistake becomes obvious in light of John’s reputation as a hit man, it is all too clear that his second mistake was to leave him alive. With nothing left to lose, John will stop at nothing to seek his revenge, and he is certainly qualified for the job.
“John Wick” is the epitome of the action genre. As revenge stories go, films hardly ever seek to accomplish more than to entertain with constant action. While the script is fairly average and it is not likely to be the season’s biggest blockbuster, the film is not meant to take a swing at becoming a box office leader. It simply relies on action, from intensely choreographed fight scenes and explosions, to classic muscle cars and fast-paced highway chases. In certain ways, the movie is reminiscent of Reeves’ iconic films of old, although they had noticeably fewer slow-motion clips than “The Matrix Reloaded.”
As for props, fans of all-American classic vehicles will find this movie a showcase of dream cars. Among the lineup, John’s ’69 Mustang makes an appearance early on as a central presence in the film, a distinct connection to the pain and memory of his lost love. He is later outfitted with what appears to be a late ’60s or early ’70s Chevelle SS. The Chevelle may not have the same sentimental value to John as the Mustang, but it makes for quite a statement on the drive to a shootout.
Yet beyond the physical presence of the cars and guns, the reality of each action sequence delivers the quality of the film. Within the action genre, few movies consider the actual threat of bullets piercing through the windshield as their steadfast heroes speed headfirst into the storm. Instead, rather than granting him luck or an extreme talent at dodging bullets, the film keyed in on John’s thought process, even if that meant driving in reverse to stay out of the line of fire.
That being said, John Wick is not the average action film hero. He evidently feels pain, whereas other characters must have extremely high pain tolerance as they walk into the sunset with several bullets in them. The same reality is true for all unfortunate victims of John’s revenge as well; Stahelski didn’t pull any punches in depicting the physicality of being shot. To further immerse the film in reality, John is consistently aware of his ammunition supply and reloads appropriately. Rarely, if ever, are movie characters seen counting bullets and improvising their plan of attack in order to conserve what little ammunition they have left. Going into such detail was certainly a bold move by the first time director, and it proved to be worth the risk. Directors can easily overload the audience with this, but if done successfully, believing that one man could fight impossible odds becomes much more tangible when his thoughts and fight for survival make sense according to reality.
Those who enjoy an old-fashioned revenge story will likely be saving this one for their backlog. “John Wick” delivers on the central purpose of nonstop action and is hopefully a sign of a promising future in directing for newcomer Stahelski.
As for Reeves, yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.