At the age of 50 (if you can believe that) Keanu Reeves looks 10 years younger, and the Valley Boy ‘Whoa’ that defined so many of his iconic roles has vanished — at least in his portrayal of The Boogeyman of Assassins in director Chad Staheslki’s extremely satisfying revenger, “John Wick.”
While the action scenes never fail to hit the sweet spot, the real pleasure of “John Wick” comes from the leisurely-paced reveals that tell us who this man is, who he was, and where he came from.
Although he makes it his own, screenwriter Derek Kolstad appears to have been inspired by Donald Westlake’s “The Hunter,” which has been adapted into two films: John Boorman’s noir masterpiece “Point Blank” (1967) and Brian Hegeland’s “Payback,” (1999). For what we also have in “John Wick” is a single-minded, resourceful, betrayed anti-hero with a dead wife who’s out for justice over something seemingly insignificant. Better still, during his bloody quest, the audience is allowed to enjoy a fascinating tour of a criminal underworld that operates like a Fortune 500 company.
The criminals here are New York-based Russian mobsters, whose Boston branch just took a helluva beating a few weeks ago at the hands of Denzel Washington’s “Equalizer.” Without spoiling the delicious details, these heavily tattooed misanthropes have it all figured out: lucrative blackmail schemes and access to luxury hotels and nightspots run by a criminal underworld that hides in plain sight. There’s even a secret monetary system to ensure no undesirables accidently wander into this excusive, deadly world.
Five years ago John Wick left this world for the love of a woman he’s just lost to an unspecified illness. The night after the funeral the ridiculously adorable puppy she arranged to help him through his grief arrives. Through the kind of first-act coincidence we forgive in these kinds of movies, the coldly brutal murder of that pup activates Wick against his former employers, led by Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).
Wick will have his revenge, and God help anyone who attempts to stop him.
Structured like a first-person shoot-’em-up video game, Wick summons all his dark talents and rage to pile up Russian bodies like firewood under increasingly difficult circumstances. The $2 million bounty Tasarov put on his head that turns former friends into does does little to slow him down.
“John Wick” is populated with a herd of outstanding character actors: Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters, and David Patrick Kelly. The parts are small. The actors are not. Each shine in well-crafted scenes, which elevates the movie considerably. As does a sense of humor.
Some of the actions scenes, like the shootout set to music in a crowded nightclub, are downright exhilarating. All of them are well-choreographed, staged, and shot in a way that the audience can follow. No shaky-cammed laziness or choppy editing shortcuts get in the way of letting us keep up with what is happening to whom and where.
“John Wick” knows exactly what it is and what it promises. That promise is kept and then some. Bloody, violent, funny, fascinating and satisfying.
This is how you make a revenge film.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC