John Wick Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Rated R. Opens Friday.
When retired assassin John Wick’s wife dies after a long illness, he sheds a few manly tears and then returns to his stoic existence, because long illnesses are not vulnerable to bullets. But when Russian thugs kill John’s dog (a gift from his late wife) and steal his vintage Mustang, he breaks out his weapons and sets out to kill, well, everyone. Because the petulant sadist who angered John is the son of a notorious crime boss, soon the entire weight of the Russian mob has descended on John, but he just grits his teeth and reloads.
The plot is simplistic in the extreme and more than a little silly, but John Wick is delivered with style and energy, led by a surprisingly strong performance from Keanu Reeves as the title character. Reeves’ limited range works well for a man who keeps his emotions bottled up, and he allows just enough rage and regret to rise to the surface for the audience to get a sense of John’s inner turmoil, without getting in the way of the ass-kicking. That, of course, is the movie’s main appeal, and director Chad Stahelski (a veteran stunt coordinator who was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) stages a number of fluid action sequences, mixing brutality with clarity and just enough wit.
This is the kind of movie in which multiple characters have secret weapons compartments hidden in their homes, and an upscale hotel caters exclusively to assassins (complete with its own house rules). Michael Nyqvist (as the Russian crime boss) and Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen (as his sniveling son) make for solid villains, and the supporting cast includes entertaining turns from Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and especially Adrianne Palicki as John’s assassin colleagues. The script by Derek Kolstad moves efficiently from one point to the next, although it drags a bit during a third act that requires John to clean up every last loose end.
John is no less ridiculous or superhuman than your typical action hero (after killing 12 guys and ending up with a scratch on his face, he laments that he’s getting rusty), but his movie knows when to step back and let that action speak for itself.