The golden rule of movies is: do what you like to people but, whatever you do, don’t hurt any animals. Well that goes out the window in this latest action tale of revenge starring Keanu Reeves as legendary retired hitman John Wick. Near the start of the movie he has a run-in with a hapless Russian mobster (Alfie Allen, here getting almost as much abuse as he does in Game of Thrones) who gets revenge by stealing his car and (very slight spoiler alert) killing his dog. This makes John mad, very mad indeed.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – both of whom worked as second unit directors and stunt coordinators on The Matrix franchise – you get a real sense of visceral excitement in the fight and gunplay scenes, of which there are many. With a script by Derek Kolstad they do a good job of world building too, as Wick gets drawn back into the shady environs of the hitman there are lots of nice touches: characters use gold coins as currency; they all hang out at the Continental Hotel, which has strict rules about not doing business on its grounds; and the underworld is more or less helmed by a sort of godfather type figure (played superbly by Ian McShane, who else?).
Apparently, the script was written for a guy in his mid ’60s; but I guess Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington were busy so they turned to Keanu. It’s good they did too as he’s a great fit for a retired assassin, world weary but not too much so (he’s 50 in real life, so has a good decade on Neeson and co.), but he’s nimble enough to cut it in the fight scenes. In fact, as is the way with these things, the film (so far) has done well critically and commercially, so it would be a huge surprise if we don’t see John Wick 2 in a few years’ time.
At the cinema I was thinking this would make a good companion piece to The Raid 2. Both are dominated by three or four action set pieces, both hang a loose plot over the whole thing, but get away with it due to their execution and delivery. But where The Raid maybe takes itself a little seriously and has a lead actor that is fairly new to the game, Keanu is a relatively old hand. And whilst he’s known for playing fairly serious characters, John Wick as a film doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s slightly offbeat and darkly humorous at times. And Keanu with a wry smile underneath the mayhem is actually quite refreshing.
A lot of the rest of the tone can be attributed to the performance of Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (best known from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) as the main bad guy, Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov. He brings a sort of unhinged glee to proceedings that sits nicely with dour old John. That said, this is the best Keanu has been in a while. You could sense he was having fun (beneath all the gunfire and killing).
So… A simple tale, told with a bit of flair, job done. Who would have thought this filmmaking game was so easy? File this under ‘Friday night popcorn movie’, sit back and enjoy. Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough for you, it’s also got Willem Defoe in it. An ace in the hole, if ever there was one.