I always find myself having to defend Keanu Reeves' acting prowess. He always gets a lot of guff, with people saying he has no range, no variety in his roles, and is, overall, just flat and not very good. Of course, I disagree. When given the right role, I've always felt that Reeves is quite the good actor who can do wonders with a role that, in other hands, might have been generic, or even hammy. Imagining Matrix, Point Break, Bill and Ted or yes, even Johnny Mnemonic without Reeves is quite difficult, and I daresay they'd even be worse off without his presence.
And now, I can add John Wick in full confidence to that list. Also, it's a damn fine movie.
The basic set-up in Wick might seem painfully simple, but from my perspective, it's almost elegant in its minimalism. We see John's wife die from an unknown disease. We see him start taking care of a puppy she left him so he wouldn't have to grieve alone. We see Russian mobsters break into his home, kill said dog, then steal his '69 Mustang. That's pretty much it. But this seemingly minor event, especially when compared to other thriller contemporaries like Taken, is all it takes to push this man who's lost everything over the edge. And that's when we find out that John is a retired hitman for the father of one of the mobsters. You can probably see where this is going.
On paper, John Wick seems almost trite. A grieving man watches his dog get killed and his car get stolen, then goes on a killing rampage. But thanks to the snappy script and the skillful direction, the film takes on a sort of meta, self-aware nature that elevates it leaps and bounds above other modern action films. The writers know that the whole thing may seem patently ridiculous, which is why they don't embellish tiny details. We only have one or two long diatribes from Keanu, but the rest is just inference. We're never given enough dialogue to question his quiet, boiling rage, or to question the morality of what he's doing. Simply put, the audience is just along for the ride. Although, I will say that if you don't cheer for a guy shooting some people who'd kill a puppy, well, I've got nothing to say to you.
There is more to the movie from a narrative standpoint, though. Most of it is done through the power of inference. There's a whole ancillary cast, a group of people who have past connections to John, but we're never really given explicit details as to what they mean to him. We known they're important, we know that they may be close, but there are no drawn-out flashbacks, no overwrought exposition. Every detail about this world, this underground network of assassins that's merely hinted at, is supposed to be filled in by our minds. And honestly, the movie is far better off for it, the lack of details adding to the tension and giving the movie an almost surreal nature.
But rest assured, action junkies, this is still a movie packed to the brim with martial arts, loud guns, and fast cars. The action sequences are strikingly choreographed and chocked full of excellent stunt work. Some of the best I've ever seen put to film, in fact. And the best part is that there's none of the shaky, frantic, zoomed-in camerawork that seems to be a hallmark of modern action films. Every shot is well-placed and executed, giving watchers a choice view of every punch, shot and stab. Clearly, this is made by somebody who misses the old-school stuff by John Woo, the stuff which is highly artistic but still manages to get your blood pumping. It's a celebration of both "low" and "high" cinema, and it works wonderfully. Also, there's mercifully little to no CGI, which is a plus in my book.
Aside from the plot, cinematography and choreography, the little details in Wick are what helps tie the whole package together. There are some of the best performances in recent memory from Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, and even Adrian Palicki puts in a fantastic turn as a rival assassin. The soundtrack is sinister and sweeping, setting an effective mood and tone that matches the stark, neon colors on display. Oh, and the ending? The ending is perfect. Too many movies these days feel like franchise-bait, and Wick wraps up the whole yarn in an almost poetic fashion. All of these little details, coupled with the brunt of the movie (the plot and the action,) make the entire package feel like a complete, complex and even poignant product.
Is John Wick perfect? Well, no, no movie is. It's a bit long, and could have been about ten minutes shorter or so. There are barely any women present, and pretty much everyone in the cast is white, which is a tad disappointing to me. Overall, though, those are just minor infractions against what is, in my opinion, one of the best films of last year. It's a crime that tripe like American Sniper is nominated for an Oscar and not this, which is one of the most artistic, profound attempts at cinematic art in recent memory.
Do yourself a favor and rent this, or better yet, buy it for your permament collection. I know I'll be doing just that.