THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Keanu Reeves, now age 50, is in great shape and can still convincingly pull off an action role. But he's also losing the boyishness that distinguished him early in his career. There's now a surprising maturity in his face. There were times in his newest film, John Wick, when he reminded me a little bit of William Hurt. Reeves is becoming more pensive, more intense, more in possession of a certain (pardon the pretentious word) gravitas. Those qualities suggest that the second half of his career could be quite interesting, so long as directors are willing to put him in challenging, unconventional roles. For now, though, there's just John Wick, a largely standard revenge picture.
Reeves plays the title character, a former hitman who left the business after falling in love and getting married to Helen (Bridget Moynahan). As the movie opens, we see that she has died of an unspecified illness, leaving Wick depressed and hopeless. Then a package is delivered to his door. It is a puppy, a gift arranged by Helen before her passing. This dog and a lot of memories are all he has left. A chance encounter with a bunch of young gangsters leads to tragedy. They break into Wick's house, beat him up, steal his fancy sports car, and kill the dog. (Not a spoiler; this happens in the first ten minutes.) Wick then sets out to get bloody revenge. One of the punks is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), a Russian mobster Wick once had dealings with. Tarasov is none too keen on his son taking a bullet. “Wick is not the boogeyman,” the mobster says. “He is the man you call in to kill the boogeyman.”
There are two things that are slightly different about John Wick. The first is a very dry sense of humor. Wick and the various criminals/lowlifes he comes across all treat each other as businessmen, using polite, cordial language. This includes a female assassin (Adrianne Palicki), a nightclub owner (Ian McShane), and Wick's old associate (Willem Dafoe). Before and after they start shooting at one another, they engage in niceties, as though their occupations don't involve cold-blooded murder.
The other thing is that Chad Stahelski and his uncredited co-director David Leitch avoid the rapid-fire editing that has become the norm in action cinema. Instead, they use longer, unbroken takes that allow us to see that Reeves and the other actors are doing their own complicated fighting and stunts.
Those factors are admittedly cool, but they don't compensate for the fact that John Wick is little more than 101 minutes of Keanu Reeves running around shooting people in the head because they killed his dog. That's literally all there is to it. The revenge plot is pretty standard, as is the “ex-hitman getting pulled back into the game” premise. There are plenty of shootouts, and car stunts, and fistfights. Aside from the fact that they minimize the use of stunt people, nothing about them is especially engaging. Monotony starts to set in after a while. If anything, John Wick needed to go further. Reeves is obviously game to do all the physical stuff, so why not amp up these scenes as much as possible? Why not give him more to do emotionally, to capitalize on his newfound maturity?
John Wick is diverting enough, but it's also mostly routine. There have been so many movies with this exact same plot, and this one doesn't make the most of the elements that could truly set it apart. At the end of the day, it is just another variation on something any fan of action cinema has seen dozens of times before.
( 1/2 out of four)
John Wick is rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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