Movie Review: “John Wick”

Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe
David Leitch & Chad Stahelski

“John Wick” is loud, as in ‘bring earplugs’ loud. It is muscle cars at full throttle, hailstorms of bullets, and shattered glass. There is an offbeat humor to it that vaguely recalls the wave of post-Tarantino crime movies of the ‘90s, but the story is a bone-straight, and therefore dull, revenge thriller. It is blood, death, and noise. There is “Keanu’s best since ‘The Matrix’” talk circling around this film. The very fact that that may be true is damning with faint praise.

Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who has just buried his terminally ill wife. He runs across some Russian thugs, who admire his car. They ask how much he wants for it. John tells them it’s not for sale. Later that night, the thugs break into John’s house, beat him up, steal the keys, and murder his puppy, a parting gift from his wife. The lead thug Iosef (Alfie Allen) is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the gangster John used to work for, and Viggo tells his son that he done screwed up good, as John’s nickname within the organization was The Boogeyman, and now The Boogeyman has lost literally everything that ever mattered to him.

If Wick worked for Iosef’s father, how is it that they have never met before, even accidentally? Even if Iosef doesn’t know of Wick, you have to think that Wick knows of Iosef, and might recognize his boss’ offspring when he sees them. It’s a lot to ask of the audience, and honestly, there is no movie otherwise. This is the part where Basil Exposition appears and tells us to just go with it. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.

“John Wick” is extremely proud of its fight scenes, which can be put into two categories: the slaughter scenes, and the wrestling scenes, a mixture of hand-to-hand combat and body positioning in order to gain the upper hand. The wrestling scenes are elaborate and therefore admirable, since they were probably a nightmare to choreograph and shoot, but they are no match for the scenes where Reeves wipes out armies with a gun, a knife, and occasionally a sink. Editing, thankfully, is not of the hyperkinetic variety, making it much easier to follow the action.

There is some bad acting here, and we’re not talking about Reeves. (Reeves has been better, but he’s the least of the movie’s concerns.) Alfie Allen is just awful as the entitled trust fund gang banger wannabe, and Nyqvist fares only marginally better in a role that had greatness in its grasp. These two suck a ton of wind out of the sails, as they take up a majority of downtime between bloodbaths; as they become more unwatchable, so does the movie. The role players, however, are superb, particularly John Leguizamo as a body shop manager, Ian McShane as the proprietor of a hotel for criminals with a strict ‘no killing’ policy, and Lance Reddick as the hotel manager.

This will surely seem like a breath of fresh air for anyone who was brave enough to watch “47 Ronin,” but “John Wick” is not worthy of the hype that it’s receiving. If anything, it’s a slightly better version of the scene in “Hitman” where the camera moves behind Timothy Olyphant in such a way that the audience feels like they’re playing a video game and can control his actions. There is potential here, but it is squandered on those borderline fetishistic fight scenes, and logic lapses like the bit where they expect us to believe that a helicopter is going to take off in a thunderstorm, along with the aforementioned ‘those two really don’t know each other?’ conceit. It’s not enough for an action movie to just be bloody anymore; to paraphrase Roger Ebert, we have to care about the blood. “John Wick” missed its ideal sell-by date by about 18 years.